With a district title in its sights, Ashland took care of business on Friday night.
The Tomcats defeated Greenup County, 35-6, at Putnam Stadium to grab their sixth straight win. It also moves their district record to 3-0, guaranteeing them at least one home playoff game.
But next week Ashland has a chance to earn home-field advantage for the playoffs when it hosts undefeated Johnson Central for the district championship. And after Friday’s win over Greenup County, Tomcats coach Tony Love sent a message to his team: Lock it down.
“Next week is going to be the biggest game of their career,” Love said. “Johnson Central is a good team, and coach (Jim) Matney does a good job. Nobody has been able to slow them down this year. We’ve stressed this to our kids and we’re going to challenge them.
“We are playing for a district championship and home-field advantage, so I don’t think our kids are going to lack motivation.”
Ashland initially struggled with Greenup County, which was gunning for an upset.
After forcing the Tomcats’ first possession into a turnover on downs, the Musketeers marched the ball into Ashland territory.
As the offense stalled and faced a fourth-and-17, the Musketeers answered with the game’s first touchdown. Jared Hunt found Riley Hamm for a 25-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field.
“Greenup County is not the same team they’ve been the past three years,” Love said. “They are much improved. They’re a lot more disciplined. We knew we were going to be in for a tough game.”
After giving up the first touchdown, Ashland then marched down the field, scoring in less than three minutes with a Quinton Baker three-yard run.
Greenup County then started driving again, getting into Tomcats territory. But on a third-and-12, Hunt was intercepted by senior safety James Queen.
Queen returned the ball 60 yards and set up another Baker touchdown run, this time from six yards out. Queen admitted that he was a little upset he wasn’t able to put the ball in the end zone.
“Our coach just started screaming to trail out to the flats and I just jumped that out route,” Queen said. “I thought I had (a touchdown) because I had blockers out in front of me. Then I just saw someone out of the corner of my eye and they just got my ankle.”
The senior was upset he couldn’t get a pick-six, but would end up finding the end zone later in the game. In the third quarter, quarterback Hunter Prince found Queen wide-open for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
Love said it’s easy to get those open passing plays when the other team’s focus is on Baker, who finished as the game’s leading rusher with 118 yards on 20 carries.
“I keep saying this — people are going to line up and to try and take Quinton away,” Love said. “Other teams don’t want Quinton to beat them, so we have to be patient and not force things.”
Tomcats fullback Josh Vaughn finished with 92 yards on eight carries.
After starting off strong, Greenup County ran into the kind of bad luck that’s plagued them the past three years.
The Musketeers lost star running back Ryan Byrd for the season on the first offensive play last week. This week, Jeffery Williams, his replacement, had to be taken off the field on a stretcher after the first offensive play.
Coming into the game, Greenup County had lost five key players because of injury or illness. By halftime, four more had to leave the game.
In the second half, with several players playing both sides of the ball, Greenup County managed only 69 yards of total offense.
“It’s unbelievable with the injuries,” Mullins said. “You don’t want to make excuses, but it’s uncanny the amount of injuries we’ve had. What can you say when you have that many guys are out, and at the end of the third quarter it’s a 21-6 football game. It goes to show you that, in comparison to two years ago, our younger kids are stepping up and giving us a chance.”
But by the time the fourth quarter came around, the Musketeers couldn’t stop Ashland’s Miles McGranahan, who added two touchdowns in the final frame. The senior finished with 73 yards on just five carries.
“Our defense was on the field the entire second half and they got tired,” Mullins said. “(McGranahan) was fresh and he just made our guys look slow. It was a physical game. I thought we did a good job on Baker, but ultimately we had guys going every single snap.”
Greenup County still has a chance to make the playoffs, with a game against Boyd County next week to decide who makes the trip up north to play Highlands.
Mullins said he doesn’t care about playing the perennial state champs, he just wants a shot in the playoffs.
“After two 0-10 seasons, 4-6 and a spot in the playoffs sounds good to me,” Mullins said. “We want to play (Highlands). Our kids aren’t afraid of anyone, they weren’t afraid of Ashland or Johnson Central. So just give us the opportunity, and we’ll ask our kids to go out there an take it.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.