No one ever questioned Keontae Pittman’s speed. And if they did, his region championship in the 400-meter dash as an Ashland eighth-grader should’ve shut them up.
Region titles in all the sprint events — the 100, 200 and 400 — the next two years followed, as well as a middle school state title, a trip to the National Junior Olympics and designation as the 2017 Kentucky USATF Youth Male Track Athlete of the Year.
Rival coach T.J. Maynard didn’t have to be convinced, but Pittman supplied additional evidence anyway on the first play from scrimmage of the Class 3A, District 7 championship game last season.
With Russell, Class 3A’s stingiest defense, lined up opposite the Tomcats, Pittman took a handoff on a wing counter, as Maynard recalled it, and galloped 57 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s one of those guys that you can bottle him up nine plays out of 10,” Maynard said, “but that one play, you give him one little space of daylight, and he’s gonna take it to the house. He’s such a home-run hitter that he can go the distance at any time.”
Pittman’s evolution into an Ashland-style running back — track-style after-burners are a nice attribute, sure, but anti-aversion to being hit is a prerequisite — took a little longer.
“I had to stop running and maybe think about the team a little bit more, instead of just getting the ball and running off, being lazy on blocks,” Pittman said. “Start getting more contact and connect more.”
Tony Love pinpoints the night the light bulb illuminated for Pittman as Aug. 31, 2018, the date of the third game of his sophomore season for the Tomcats, against George Washington (West
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Pittman hadn’t produced much the week before that — 18 yards on six carries against Raceland — and his ledger read minus-5 yards on three totes at intermission in Charleston.
Ashland’s coach reminded Pittman at halftime that the Tomcats’ signature power rushing plays aren’t designed toward the perimeter.
“It was a matter of, we’re gonna have to run between the tackles in the second half to win the game,” Love said.
The Tomcats were up three at halftime but blew the Patriots away, 50-28, largely behind Pittman. He rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
“And from that point, he started to excel and really started to appreciate how big the field can be by running between the tackles once you get to Level 2,” Love said.
Maynard paid witness to that as first a non-district rival before KHSAA realignment shifted the ancient rival Tomcats and Red Devils into the same district before last season.
“If you’ve watched his development over the years, obviously the speed is one thing,” Maynard said, “but I thought last year he showed a lot more strength than he had in years previous, and worked hard in the weight room to help develop that part of it. Again, he’s one of those guys that you can’t give him any daylight.”
The result: 1,040 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore, and 1,265 yards and 17 TDs as a junior.
A veteran offensive line paved the way for Pittman as a sophomore and junior. They weren’t just strong, but talented — in Ashland’s parlance, instead of separating “skill players” from meatheads or big uglies, the Tomcats call them “big skill” and “little skill” players.
Pittman wasn’t asked to be “the guy” by himself either; QB Braxton Ratliff sprinted and slung his way to becoming Ashland’s career leader in total offense during Pittman’s 10th-grade season, and Blake Hester turned in a breakout offensive campaign joining Pittman in the backfield last fall.
This year, Pittman stands squarely in the spotlight as the Tomcats break in a new quarterback and four first-year starting offensive linemen. And Ashland’s next-leading-returning rusher after Pittman compiled 90 yards on the ground last season.
“This year, with really a new offensive line, his challenges are gonna be greater,” Love said of Pittman, “and we have talked several times about expectations and what he needs to understand that goes into a good offensive line developing. We’ll have some growing pains to begin with, but I really think the kids that we have stepping up to play offensive line are gonna do a great job. It’s just, they’re gonna have to have that experience.
“While that happens, (Pittman) and the other running backs are gonna have to make plays, and they’re gonna have to avoid some things.”
Pittman understands that challenge and relishes it, citing his job with newcomers being to “make sure they feel comfortable, as much as they can be.”
“I’m gonna make sure and push them every single day,” he added, “make sure that they’re getting everything they need and go from there.”
Ashland may help make up for its regenerating depth with a heavy dose of Pittman and/or fellow track athlete and versatile player J.T. Garrett in a Wildcat setting.
“You always want your playmakers touching the ball,” Love said. “I talked to coach (offensive coordinator Colt) Phelps about creativity with how to get them the ball, and that’s a process that we’re going through. We have ideas, and sometimes you have an idea until you put it on the field and you thought it was a good idea, and you have to adjust a little bit here and there, and that’s what the game’s all about. Those guys, they’re gonna make plays, they’re gonna be dynamic players, and to have that dual threat back there is ... a little bit more of a flavor that we’ll have in our offense, so that’s exciting to me.”
Pittman has his eye on a college career, too. He holds offers from a handful of Group of Five schools and was leaning toward Miami (Ohio) as of early August, he said. If that pans out, Pittman would join Hester in the MAC — his former backfield mate is a preferred walk-on at Akron.
Before then, Ashland’s focus is to be ready for district play, whenever it comes and in whatever form. Russell looms as the most likely foil there — the Red Devils gave the Tomcats all they wanted in a regular-season meeting last year before Ashland won the playoff rematch decisively.
Pittman again played a key role in that difference. A physical and sound Russell defense limited Pittman to 24 yards and no scores on 12 carries in Ashland’s 21-14 victory in the regular season.
Four weeks later, the Tomcats surprised the Red Devils with their opening play call and Pittman made Russell pay 11 seconds into the game. Ashland led 20-0 before the Red Devils scored the next two touchdowns, but Pittman added another 51-yard trip to paydirt and totaled 152 yards in a 33-14 Tomcats win.
“First game, we were able to not allow the big plays in the run game,” Maynard said. “We did a pretty good job of making them earn everything. That second game, unfortunately, we didn’t do as good of a job. A lot of credit goes to (Ashland). They created a couple lanes, and when they got those lanes, (Pittman) took advantage of it.”
Pittman might have missed those lanes three years ago. He followed them last year to a district title and one of the area’s prominent positions as a senior.