Johnson Central coach Jim Matney called the Ashland-Johnson Central rivalry a “friendly” one.
The Golden Eagles haven’t been so “friendly” to the Tomcats on the field under Matney’s guidance, though. He is 7-2 against Ashland as Johnson Central’s head coach and 10-3 overall — he was 3-1 against Ashland while at Sheldon Clark.
Johnson Central has been dominant in every sense of the word in 2013. It will look to maintain an undefeated record and defend the Class 4A, District 8 title on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Putnam Stadium.
At 7-2, Ashland has enjoyed a successful season under first-year coach Tony Love. The Tomcats haven’t lost since Sept. 6 against George Washington.
Love has had a few opportunities to jump ship to Johnson Central over the past 20 seasons, 19 of which were served as a Tomcat assistant.
“I’ve offered him a job three times,” Matney said with a chuckle.
None of those three occasions included this past offseason.
“I felt like from the get-go he would get the (Ashland head coaching) job,” Matney said.
“It’s a good rivalry, a friendly rivalry,” he continued. “Coach (Leon) Hart and I were friends. Coach Love and I are friends. There have been some remarkable games.”
Remarkable is just one way of putting it. In 2009 and 2012, the Golden Eagles mustered up near-miraculous comebacks on the strength of uncanny plays.
Four years ago in Paintsville, Johnson Central’s backup quarterback threw a decisive touchdown pass to the starting quarterback. Just last season, current quarterback Zach Gound zipped a low line drive to wideout Dalton Adkins to set up a game-winning two-point conversion rush by Jordan Young.
“It’s always an exciting, interesting game for fans to watch,” Matney said. “It’s a fun game for this time of year.”
That devastating 22-21 loss, though, is not weighing on the minds of the Tomcats. Just a pair of them experienced significant playing time in that game.
Quinton Baker, the area’s top rusher with 1,387 total yards (154 per game) and 15 TDs, had just one touch in the contest before sitting out with a foot injury.
Not just Baker, but the entire Ashland team is chomping at the bit for a shot at the district. The Tomcats took the title in 2011 with a 22-6 win over the Golden Eagles at Putnam.
Love told his kids to look no further than this past weekend in college football to find reason to believe they can shed the underdog label on Friday.
“We’ve been talking about all the upsets that happened,” Love said. “You look at their body language, and you don’t already see a whipped pup before they go out there. They know there’s a lot on the line, and they know they have to be on point with everything they’re doing.”
Love needed just two seconds to list the top five characteristics of the Golden Eagles.
“Big, strong, fast, well-coached, disciplined ...” Love said. “All those qualities make a very, very good team.”
They’re tall, too. The offensive line has the length that one might usually see in a basketball starting lineup.
Tristen Salyer leads the front five. Salyer stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs 305 pounds. According to Matney, he is a Division I prospect. Quade Ward (6-4, 260) and Chris Niece (6-3, 245) join Salyer in leading the line. Tight end Truman Salyer (6-6, 230) is also a blocking force.
Also standing tall has been 6-4 sophomore Tyler Pack. The kicker recently set a state record with a 60-yard field goal. He is ranked No. 1 in the 2016 class, according to Prokicker.com, and ninth overall.
“Any way you look at it, a 60-yard field goal, that’s something you don’t see,” Love said. “He’s a real offensive weapon for them.”
Johnson Central has mowed its way to an 8-0 record. The Golden Eagles are outscoring opponents by 46.5 points per game. Much of the scoring has been done by the trio of running backs consisting of Daymion Belcher, Josh Dillon and Young. Bryce Workman, a transfer from Sheldon Clark, has established himself as a weapon behind Gound, too.
“It’s a luxury to have two quarterbacks,” Matney said. “Zach Gound has started for three years, and he has a boatload of experience, knowledge and coolness. Then, you insert Bryce, and he brings a lot of electricity.”
Ashland has won six straight all while battling a slew of injuries. Over the course of the season, 12 starters have been hurt. Some have returned.
Largely overshadowed has been the steady improvement of the Tomcats’ front line. Trey Thompson, Austin Moore, Andrew Burgess, Tyson Baker and Luke Johnson are the starters, with Dylan Patrick and Chris Kitchen frequently rotating in.
“Those guys have really worked hard to understand the whole concept of blocking schemes,” Love said.
“Every big game is won and lost up front,” he added. “You see it in every level of football ... we know it will be tough sledding to try to move the ball, but I feel confident in our guys.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.