As fate would have it, Ashland’s boys and Russell’s girls received another chance to represent the 16th Region at the Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena in Lexington this spring.

Both basketball teams also earned the opportunity last year, but COVID-19 wiped away their shot to prove their state worth. It seemed fitting for both schools to punch their tickets again for the long-anticipated and well-deserved trip to Lexington. It’s too bad Ashland couldn’t try to polish off an undefeated season with a state title in 2020, but the Tomcats fared well in 2021.

Facing heaps of adversity throughout the season, Ashland didn’t achieve perfection this year. However, the Tomcats grabbed a region crown for a third consecutive year with some hard-fought victories.

Ashland implemented a perfect defensive game plan, spearheaded by feisty senior Hunter Gillum, and executed it extremely well to defeat Knox Central. The following day, the Tomcats took down Boyle County. While they suffered a semifinal loss to eventual champion Highlands, the ’Cats had nothing to sulk about. They left it all on the floor and made it to the Final Four. Congratulations to coach Jason Mays and his bunch.

Mandy Layne guided Russell to a second straight region banner by beating Boyd County again — when those two meet, it’s always a battle. Senior Aubrey Hill was terrific in Game 1 at State, racking up 22 points and 10 rebounds for a memorable double-double as Russell blasted its way into the second round. The Lady Devils met their match there, but they didn’t go home without a win. Kudos to a resilient Russell team.

While last year’s seniors missed out on playing in the state tournament, both teams united to do their very best to make up for the lost opportunity. They made it back, clearing the obstacle of COVID-19. Really and truly, all area student-athletes have overcome this hurdle by working together to push through tough times. Many life lessons were learned.

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