Ashland's weekend was an object lesson in what the Tomcats are trying to achieve -- and what has been, to quote coach Jason Mays channeling Nick Saban, merely a happy "byproduct."
After wiping out Russell on Friday night and besting Boyd County on Sunday afternoon, Ashland (17-0) is one win away from tying its 1976-77 team for the third-best start in program history.
The Tomcats polished off every challenge in a rigorous pre-New Year's portion of the schedule and capped the primarily out-of-region slate by beating defending state champ Trinity on Tuesday.
Then came Ashland's two fiercest rivals. And having the Red Devils on Friday kept the Tomcats from looking ahead to the Lions the next night (before the game was suspended until Sunday due to floor conditions), which is what Mays has espoused in a Saban-like focus on The Process.
"(In) emotional games, you have to be prepared to do one of two things," Mays said Wednesday. "Your team's gonna play really, really well, or they're gonna play really, really poor, and you're gonna have to find a way to grind it out on that latter one. So we're just making sure that they're focusing on the team that they're playing that night."
Even so, call it human nature to start thinking about how long the Tomcats can keep the donut in the loss column.
"We say that we're staying (focused on) one game at a time, but it's hard to fully not focus on the streak," Ashland senior Ethan Hudson said. "Obviously that's on our mind a little bit, but we have to remind ourselves every day that it's one game at a time, and we just gotta keep getting better leading into the postseason."
Mays hasn't totally discouraged an eye toward an end goal.
"The thing that stands out about this team is, they think they're gonna win a state championship, and they have never doubted that," Mays said. "Now that is a very end-product goal and we're not worried about that. We're worried about our process goals that are in front of us. But because they do such a good job day in and day out ... who am I to doubt that they can win a state championship? Because I never thought they would be 15-0. Guess who did? They did.
"So I'm learning to trust them more. Matter of fact, after the game (Tuesday) night I apologized to them for not always believing in them, but then I thanked them for always believing in each other, even in the times that I didn't. If I was gonna say, hey, I knew we'd be 15-0, that's a lie. It's just so hard. But they're special kids and they've found a way to keep winning."
• Mike Helton hasn't spent much time in George Cooke Memorial Gym in the last 30 years. The Fairview Hall of Famer found a recent visit to be like stepping back in time.
"Rex Cooksey's coaching the girls at 6 o'clock and his son Brett's coaching the boys afterward, and Jake Leibee, who's an assistant for the boys, (was there), and Tom Hobbs is up doing the scoreboard, and Merle Kidwell's on the radio, who was a graduate assistant when I was at Morehead," Helton said. "It was just like, everywhere I looked, I knew people, and it was more special than I thought it would be, given the fact that I didn't really tell anybody that I was coming in."
Helton, who capped his Fairview career in 1990 with one of the greatest individual performances in 16th Region Tournament history, returned to Westwood from his residence in Tampa, Florida, last weekend. His wife and daughter spent the weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so Helton had his sons -- Blake, 18; Gage, 15; and Tate, 14 -- in tow.
They checked out Shawnee State, where Helton finished up his playing career, on Jan. 3 and took in the typically passionate atmosphere for a Boyd County-Fairview game in Westwood that evening.
"I don't talk much about my past," Helton said. "(My sons) knew dad played basketball, but they didn't really know to what extent, so when they saw my picture and jersey on the wall there in the lobby at Fairview, I think it was special for them. They got a kick out of that ... to see that their old man wasn't just an old man at one point in time."
As for the three younger Heltons, they are more into baseball and football than basketball, true to the popular pecking order at the high school level in the Sunshine State, Helton said, which he jokingly called "heart-breaking."
Helton scored 118 points in three games in the 1990 region tournament, including 43 in a title-game loss to Boyd County. He is now a tax accountant in Tampa, where he moved when the industry prominent in the 20th century in northeastern Kentucky began to dwindle.
"I came down here and vacationed once," Helton said, "and I was like, hey, I'd rather live here and vacation in Kentucky. I love it (in Tampa), but I love getting back, too. ... It's a close-knit community, it's family, and it always will be, and they treat you like that when you're home."
• Boyd County's Blake Stewart set Lions career records for games played and steals in a two-day affair against Ashland on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Stewart played in his 131st career game, breaking a tie with Casey Sparks, and he registered his 309th and 310th career steals against the Tomcats, lifting him above Frank Lee in that category.
• Raceland's boys improved to 11-2 on Saturday night by beating Fairview, 70-56, in the 16th Region All "A" Classic quarterfinals. That made this the Rams' best start since beginning the 1989-90 season 15-2, per Shawn Johnson, Raceland's all-time winningest coach.
• Greenup County's boys point total in a 109-45 victory over St. Joseph-Altercrest (Ohio) on Friday night marked the most points scored by a 16th Region team since Rowan County outlasted Augusta, 113-110, in double overtime on Feb. 12, 2013. And it was the most scored in a regulation game by a region team since Raceland knocked off Riverside Christian, 115-45, on Feb. 16, 2012.
• Defending 15th Region Tournament boys champion Johnson Central has struggled to find a consistent rhythm, including a 62-60 loss at Paintsville on Friday night following a 51-48 overtime setback to Martin County on Jan. 2 to fall to 0-2 in 57th District seeding for the first time since 1998-99. But coach Tommy McKenzie thinks the Golden Eagles found a turning point in an 83-81 overtime loss at Russell on Jan. 4.
"In the latter stages of that game, our team sort of found our identity in the second half and established who we want to be moving forward, which is high-paced, high-intensity defensively and highly efficient offensively," McKenzie said.
That manifested itself in a 75-58 win over Pikeville on Monday in a rematch of the last three region finals.
"Keys for us moving forward are continuing to play to our strengths, continuing to eliminate silly turnovers, continuing to be efficient on the offensive end, and continuing to develop our bench/rotations," McKenzie said. "If we can do those things, we'll have another shot by the end of the year."
• West Carter, likely the on-paper favorite in 62nd District boys play (if such a thing exists), didn't look it in a 67-49 loss at Morgan County on Dec. 14.
The Comets have since won their last two district seeding games -- a 63-44 win over the Cougars on Jan. 3 and a 46-33 victory at East Carter on Friday.
"It was a learning experience," West Carter coach Jeremy Webb said of the loss in West Liberty. “That’s an eye-opener. It showed us some things we had to work on, and we had to work harder in practice, and from that point on, our guys have really changed that. We’ve brought so much more energy, and you feel like now it’s starting to pay off because it seems like we’re getting a little momentum and playing better.”
• Ashland’s 50-43 victory over Trinity in Lexington on Tuesday night was the first earned by a 16th Region team over the defending state champion since Rowan County exacted a measure of revenge for its loss to Christian County in the 2011 state final 10 months earlier by knocking off the Colonels, 55-51, in the Ashland Invitational Tournament on Dec. 27, 2011.
• Two former northeastern Kentucky coaches reached milestones in recent weeks. Pikeville girls coach Kristy Orem picked up her 400th career win in a 66-29 victory over Jenkins on Tuesday. Orem claimed 275 of them at Fleming County from 2000-16.
George Rogers Clark boys bench boss Josh Cook collected career win No. 200 when the Cardinals topped East Jessamine, 70-60, on Jan. 4. Forty-one of those wins were earned by Lawrence County from 2012-14 under Cook’s direction.
• Rowan County’s Mason Moore scored his 2,000th career point on Jan. 4 against Wayne County. Three other area performers reached 1,000 for their careers this week: Rowan County’s Haven Ford (as a freshman), West Carter’s Becca Nolen and Greenup County’s Brady Nelson.
• The newest member of The Daily Independent's sports department is, well, not new. Matthew Sparks joins us full-time today after heavily contributing to our sports section and to "Halftime Prep Talk" in a freelance role from 2010-18. Sparks, a Raceland native, will also be chipping in on our A-section. We are, of course, excited to have him back from Mississippi. Feel free to extend a warm hello when you see him out and about!
Klemme's Super Seven
1. Ashland (17-0)
2. Rowan Co. (12-6)
3. Raceland (11-2)
4. Greenup Co. (12-3)
5. Boyd Co. (9-7)
6. Lawrence Co. (8-6)
7. J. Central (8-6)
At the scorer's table (next three in): W. Carter, E. Carter, Paintsville.
1. Ashland (10-4)
2. Russell (9-5)
3. Boyd Co. (10-6)
4. W. Carter (8-5)
5. E. Carter (10-5)
6. Rowan Co. (9-7)
7. Fairview (13-2)
At the scorer's table (next three in): Fleming Co., J. Central, Lawrence Co.
Lawrence County’s Tyler Maynard would still make it even if the club upped its cover charge to 40 points, with change to spare. He poured in 41 against Magoffin County in the Kentucky 2A Section 8 Tournament final on Friday night.
Three familiar faces join him: Lewis County’s Sam O’Keefe (39 versus Elliott County on Friday), Johnson Central’s Isaiah May (35 against Pikeville on Monday) and Lawrence County’s Kensley Feltner (30 against Prestonsburg on Tuesday).
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.