You saw The Shot. You know the one, the signature play of Ashland’s sensational 2019-20 season — Cole Villers’s 60-foot bomb at the buzzer to help the Tomcats engineer an escape from what seemed certain to be their first loss.
It seems obvious to identify that as the defining moment of Ashland’s 33-0 campaign. But coach Jason Mays sees a seed behind the Tomcats’ rally from a late double-digit deficit to get into position to win it on Villers’s shot.
It was a phone conversation two days earlier — one witnessed by no one, certainly not the national audience to whom SportsCenter amplified Villers’s bucket — but which helped the Tomcats get a better grip on the increasing burden of being undefeated.
Ashland had already invested in virtual training with sports psychologist Dr. Kevin Elko, best known for his close work with Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Mays had seen that bear fruit, he said, but as the Tomcats came closer and closer to becoming the first team in the 16th Region to go undefeated in nearly 100 years, “winning games was almost a relief to us versus a joyous moment,” the coach said, “where we had that monkey on our shoulders about being undefeated.”
Mays needed something a little more specific. Problem was, he figured an in-person session with Elko goes for about 10 grand, and there isn’t a public high school program in America with that kind of liquid lying around.
So Mays rang Elko’s assistant and explained what was going on, “and next thing I know I get this Pittsburgh number calling me back,” Mays said.
It was Elko, who after Mays “spill(ed) my guts” to him suggested Mays read “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” a book by Joshua Medcalf that touts the benefits of relentless focus on the process (a Saban buzzword) and fundamentals. Mays did so and discussed pertinent points with the Tomcats.
That encounter was two days before undefeated and top-ranked Ashland went to Olive Hill to meet West Carter. But a disastrous third quarter and first half of the fourth had the Tomcats down by 10 points with 4:07 to go.
Even Ashland radio voice Dicky Martin, whose lenses are as maroon-tinted as they come, thought the joyride was over and said so on the air.
“I’m coaching in that game and I’m like, Dr. Elko, I’m gonna ... “ Mays trailed his voice into the next sentence in pantomimed why-I-oughta. “Whatever. We’re playing the worst we’ve ever played. It’s coming tonight. We’re losing tonight. And Cole hits that shot.”
Video of Villers’s feat went viral before the night was over.
“(Elko) saw it on ESPN, and he hits me back and he says, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that talk meant (so much),’” Mays deadpanned.
(An attempt to contact Elko for comment was unsuccessful.)
The coach said that play made basketball fun again for the Tomcats and lifted the weight they’d toted.
Ashland played like it: of the Tomcats’ six games the rest of the way before the Sweet Sixteen was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only one was decided by fewer than 20 points.
Those interactions with Elko, and Ashland’s exploration of sports psychology and the power of language even before them, are just one facet of the extra things the Tomcats employed in their climb to the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll last year.
Ashland also cites its CrossFit workouts with local guru Ger Sasser and following nutrition plans as critical to its success. When he got to town, Mays looked up Sasser at the direction of his former boss, legendary Kentucky small-college coach Happy Osborne.
Sasser is Osborne’s second cousin and also leads workouts for Russell’s girls basketball team, Boyd County’s cross country and track program and Rose Hill Christian’s girls basketball squad, Mays said.
Optional-but-widely attended weekly devotionals with Wildwood Church of God pastor of student ministries Cody Watts are another program aspect.
It all feeds into the Tomcats’ mission statement, Mays said, of confidence, composure and class: “confidence to obtain what they set out for in life, to have the composure to realize that adversity isn’t an obstacle to success but rather should intensify your desire to succeed, and ‘class’ is, no one’s gonna remember the situation that occurred, but they’re always gonna remember how you reacted to that situation.”
Some benefits of the mind-spirit-and-body approach are intangible.
“Mentally and spiritually, that’s helped us bond together,” junior guard Ethan Sellars said of the sessions with Watts. “That has helped us a lot to grow.”
And what Mays called the “silent strength” of Sasser has made an impression, too.
“The intensity which our guys work with occurs and Ger never has to raise his voice,” Mays said. “They respect him that much.”
Mays said his lab results recently came back normal for the first time in 20 years, attributable to his work with Sasser. That’s right — Mays doesn’t sit on the sideline and watch the Tomcats heave and sweat. He and assistant coach Ryan Bonner also participate in the workouts.
“We’re equals (with the players) during that time in there,” Mays said, “and I think that’s healthy for them as well.”
The benefits are, of course, tangible, too. Ashland had zero returnees who could dunk at the end of last season. The Tomcats have “six or seven guys” that can throw it down now, “and that’s 100% because of the (CrossFit) work they’ve put in,” Mays said.
Villers said the four-days-a-week sessions, including one early on Saturday mornings, give Ashland fuel late in games. It showed: no fewer than eight opponents had the Tomcats on the ropes last year, but none could finish them off.
“A lot of teams would wear down,” Villers said, “and we were just getting started in the second half. Those are the little things that I think really win you games and win you championships.”
Concurred Sellars: “A lot of us are jumping higher than ever and lifting stronger than ever. You can just tell that something’s different about us.”
Mays is counting on it — even coming off a 33-0 season.
“We’re trying to build a culture of champions,” he said. “So there’s points to do that. ... Every year, especially in high school, you’ve gotta sort of come off those top rungs and start over again. Now sometimes you gotta start all the way at the bottom, where you’re defining what culture is and what your values are and what your mission statement is, and sometimes you just have to come off a level or two.
“That’s this team. We only had to come down a level or two; let’s get everybody acclimated and we’ll take off again.”