Blake Stewart displayed his Boyd County bona fides as Ashland coach Jason Mays searched his memory for the first name of a Lion surnamed Owens he'd once recruited as a college assistant coach.

"Antonio," the senior point guard, standing nearby, supplied.

Stewart hadn't yet entered kindergarten when Owens led the state in scoring at Boyd County in 2006, but he likely already knew as the doctor cut his umbilical cord on which side of the city-county divide he stood.

"I knew from a young age I'd never put on an Ashland jersey or anything," Stewart said, grinning. "It'd always be strictly Boyd County."

Sounds like something the Lions and Tomcats of old might have said at his age. Fitting, because their rivalry has returned to the forefront of 16th Region boys basketball, with two region tournament final meetings in the last two seasons — one won by each school — as part of a string of 10 showdowns in that span.

It didn't take Mays, in his first year in Ashland last season, until that region final to figure out what the rivalry means here. It was apparent when Tomcats and Lions backers packed Ashland's James A. Anderson Gymnasium for the fifth-place game of the Ashland Invitational Tournament.

"I knew after that first game that people took that rivalry very personal," Mays said. "In a lot of ways, it's part of the fabric of this community. I was talking to somebody the other day, and they said, 'I live out in Boyd County.' I'm thinking, 'I live in Boyd County, too.' But no, you live out in Boyd County, or you live in Ashland.

"How you say that is important to people. I think this basketball rivalry is one of the key pieces to that, and it goes back how many years?"

To 1925, when Boyd County High School was formed. But the rivalry burned brightest in the 1990s, when the Lions and Tomcats met in the region final five times in a six-year span.

Tyler Zornes provided the capper to the last of those games. The Boyd County junior's electrifying long 3-pointer at the buzzer rallied the Lions past Ashland, 54-52, in the 1999 final.

Zornes, like Stewart and his ilk, was well-educated in the series long before playing in it. He gained an appreciation watching his father, Roger, coach Boyd County against Ashland.

"(Those games) were always packed. You couldn't move," Zornes said. "And it didn't matter what time of year it was or if it was snowing, there was a lot of people out there watching. A lot of people cared about it."

But for about a decade and a half after that, the rivalry, though still intense, didn't hold the same cachet on the region level. The Ashland-Rose Hill Christian feud took center stage in the 64th District and the 16th Region in the early years of the 21st century's first decade. After that, Elliott County, Rowan County and Fleming County took turns asserting region domination.

Boyd County's nadir during that stretch was consecutive 3-23 and 2-21 seasons in 2008-09 and '09-10, the latter of which included a 61-point loss to Ashland. Five years later, the Tomcats posted their worst record ever at 5-27, and the next winter missed the region tournament for the first time in 25 years.

The Lions got back on track under Randy Anderson's guidance. When Anderson moved from Lawrence County to take the reins in Summit in 2010-11, he knew being more competitive against Ashland was paramount.

"We always heard of the rivalry, but until you're involved with it, you don't understand the intensity in both communities," Anderson said. "They live and breathe it. ... We hadn't fared very well the year before I got here, and so it added a little bit more to, hey, they may be better than us right now, but how fast and how quick can we close this gap?"

Boyd County beat Ashland for the first time under Anderson midway through his third season there and knocked off the Tomcats in the district tournament final the year after that. Boyd County hasn't lost a district title game since then, topping Ashland in five of those six meetings.

With those encounters, a new generation of Lions was introduced to meaningful postseason encounters with the Tomcats.

"I remember just walking out there and seeing all the people," Boyd County junior Carson Webb said, "one of the biggest crowds I've played for."

Concurred Lions junior Brad Newsome: "It's like the biggest adrenaline rush ever. Other games, obviously you've got a little bit of butterflies, but when you play Ashland, you know you gotta bring it."

Those district finals ensured three annual Ashland-Boyd County meetings, and the teams added, in essence, another one when the Lions became regulars in the AIT. They've met the Tomcats in that event three years running, one of which was the welcome-to-the-big-time moment for this group of Ashland players.

The Tomcats got past Boyd County, 83-80, in double overtime in the 2017 AIT championship game. Then-sophomore Ethan Hudson made three late free throws, hit a key 3-pointer to buoy Ashland during a third-quarter Lions run, and deflected to a teammate a Boyd County inbounds pass bound for Stewart in the dying seconds of the second extra session.

"That game was super packed," Hudson said. "That was one of the loudest gyms I've ever been in, and it added to the loudness factor that it was Ashland-Boyd."

That was the first of 10 Ashland-Boyd County encounters in a span of 14 months and six days -- two AIT matchups, four district seeding games, two district finals and two region title tilts.

"It's kinda like chess or checkers," Anderson said. "Every year before it starts, there's the possibility of five (meetings). Well, I hope so, because that means we're playing in the regional finals."

In that round the last two years, the Lions and the Tomcats have each ended long region championship droughts against the team each most loves to beat.

Boyd County secured its first trip to Rupp Arena in 18 years two seasons ago by knocking off Ashland, 54-49.

Stewart returned from missing the region semifinal — he didn't even make the trip to Morehead due to an inability to stop vomiting — to lead the Lions with 15 points.

"It becomes a regional final, but it also becomes Boyd and Ashland," Anderson said. "It's just a different type of mindset when you see maroon across from you. ... The intensity, I don't know how to explain it."

Hudson took a crack at it.

"Whenever you get beat by a team like that in such a big game, the whole (next) year, every time you're practicing, you're thinking about that team," Hudson said. "Every day in practice, we'd be talking about how we were gonna get our revenge, we were gonna come back, and we worked every day to try to come back at them."

The Tomcats did. Last season, Ashland rebounded from a 55-53 overtime loss to Boyd County in the district final to unseat the Lions, 59-43, in the region title game 10 days later.

It was the Tomcats' first such crown in 17 years, and it shifted the mantle of pursuit back to the Lions.

"It gets me mad every time we think about that," Newsome said, "because I always see stuff on social media, they're always posting stuff saying 'region champs,' and we always send it in our group chats. We use it as motivation."

Zornes, as a former central figure in the rivalry, would appreciate that.

"We have high, high standards here from both schools, for all sports, and basketball especially," he said. "Coming from Boyd County and Ashland from before, we've won a lot. We've always been there in the mix. It was always different when red and maroon were meeting."

Ironically, one of the most fervently red-blooded Lions of his generation -- Zornes -- can speak on behalf of both sides. He has two sons aged 5 and 4, the eldest of which attends Oakview Elementary -- in the Ashland school district.

"All of my friends, when I tell them where they're going, they're all like, 'Man, I can't believe you're over there.' At some point, you gotta let it go," Zornes said. "Having them there, I get a lot of smirks, and I get a lot of conversations when I'm at other sports events sitting on the Ashland side.

"But they're still young," Zornes quickly and comically added, "so (for high school) they could be going anywhere!"

If that school is Boyd County or Ashland, the next Zornes group can look back at today's Lions and Tomcats for inspiration -- back in the region's spotlight.

"It's not like when we go away and play someone in Lexington," Anderson said. "It's different because that game, it may fade. This one's gonna stay the rest of their life."

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