Ashland is two wins away from becoming the ninth Kentucky high school football program to reach 700 victories.
Equally as notable: The Tomcats had just eight triumphs through their first 19 seasons. Over the last 100, they’ve achieved 690.
Entering Ashland’s 120th season, coach Tony Love said the milestone figure is of great importance to the fans, school and community. However, for the 2019 ’Cats?
“That’s not really going to be a focus,” Love said. “You can get into a lot of things as you move through a season that can kinda bog you down. Sometimes you get focused on things that aren’t necessarily affecting what’s on the field. Then it can adversely affect what happens out there. We’ll focus on getting ready to play our first game and move on from there.”
Game 1 is at Knox Central tonight. Who will be on the field for Ashland?
Staples John Stone and Blake Hester will enter their fourth season as starters. They highlight a bevy of experience back.
Junior Jake Gregg, meanwhile, is one of several new names undoubtedly destined for the stat sheet. He will likely handle the bulk of quarterback duties following the departure of all-time offensive yardage collector Braxton Ratliff.
As valuable as Ratliff was, Love said his vacancy is no different than those created by the graduation of past great Tomcats.
“You think of Arliss Beach, Quinton (Baker), Drew (O’Bryan), those guys,” Love said. “A lot of people are left scratching their heads, like, how are you going to make up for the loss of that person? It becomes the challenge in the offseason, putting things in place so you can do that.”
Gregg, Colten Pinson, Brett Mullins and Landon Eden have all taken snaps throughout the preseason. As of mid-August, Gregg was well ahead of the intrasquad competition.
“I think he throws the routes that lead the receiver across the field really well,” Love said. “I think he has a really good grasp of the mental part of the game, and he’s athletic.”
Gregg has the luxury of proven protection. Stone is moving from center to tackle. Gary Swiney is back at the other tackle spot. Guards Cameron Marushi and Dane Wardle have starting experience in tow. Either Jackson Foutch or Matthew Rayburn will likely take over at center.
Love said Ashland will lean largely on its front five to stay composed amid a schedule that will presumably place the Tomcats in pressure-packed moments.
“Those guys can do a great job of setting the tone of the game, calming guys down when we need it,” Love said.
Marushi missed some time due to injury a year ago.
“He’s a tank out there,” Love said. “He’s just a quiet, go-to-work kinda guy.”
Ashland’s offense features explosive playmakers in Hester and junior Keontae Pittman. Hester, a senior, has received an offer from Morehead State. Pittman garnered an offer from Cincinnati.
“Defenses have a hard time accounting for his speed,” Love said.
According to Love, Pittman adjusted his approach last year. Instead of simply turning on the metaphorical jets and running side-to-side, he located creases in between tackles.
Pittman racked up 103 carries for 1,040 yards and 15 TDs in 2018. Hester had 594 rushing yards, 431 yards receiving and 20 total scores.
Pittman and Hester are both two-way players. Ashland will throw a wrinkle in its special-teams look by putting Pittman at punter.
“He’s got a thunderfoot,” Love said. Plus, it creates a prominent fake-punt possibility.
Caleb Tackett, Vinny Palladino, Steele Workman and Lucas Daniels are other backfield options for the ’Cats.
Love rattled off several names of pass-catchers — Jack Alley, J.T. Garrett, Camron Wilson, Paul Humphrey, Andy Layne and Pinson are among them — but he also has a firm message for them.
“The ones who get to play will be the ones who put hands on people and block the best,” Love said.
Zane Christian, Ethan Farley and Alley got reps at tight end during the preseason.
A pair of tackle-hoarding linebackers return to help spearhead the defense. Tackett and Workman collected a combined 253 tackles last fall. Triston Rayburn, Eric Billips, Gage Layman, Daniels and Garrett have also impressed the coach at linebacker.
“(Garrett) is going to be one of these, I don’t know if you want to say, hybrid-type kids at linebacker and defensive end,” Love said. “He’s such an athlete, should be extremely valuable.”
Ashland’s front wall of defense will consist of Stone, Marushi, Kolby Coburn and Jack Latherow. Stone said he is looking forward to a more magnified defensive role.
Brandon Moore, Christian, Swiney and Garrett will factor into the D-line group.
Hester, Alley and Layne return to stabilize the secondary. Hunter Gillum is back after a one-year hiatus.
“(Gillum) looks like he’s been playing all of his life at free safety,” Love said.
Wilson, Mullins and Camron Curtis are currently backups at defensive back.
Ethan Slone and C.J. Hunley are both capable of kicking.
Love, Hester and Stone all said this year’s camp was the most grueling the Tomcats have endured in some time.
“We were a lot more physical in practice,” Love said. “We challenged them in condition in different ways. We put them in stress situations. ... I saw a toughness with these kids. No matter what we did, nobody complained. Nobody hesitated with what we were asking them to do.”
Ashland added formidable foes Wheelersburg and Spring Valley to its schedule this season. The Tomcats won’t face Johnson Central for the first time since 2004. They are no longer in the same district (or class).
The Tomcats’ district opponents are East Carter, Greenup County and longtime rival Russell.