ASHLAND Michael Burgess, Jalon Taylor and Noah Roberts probably had little clue what kind of resounding impact they were making.
They were simply doing their jobs as seniors in 2016.
Burgess initially startled then-freshman John Stone.
“My first week, I was lifting weights, and (Burgess) took me by the neck, and I was like, oh, shoot,” Stone recalled. “He said, ‘You’re working out with me and you’re going to be the best lineman to ever come through here.’”
Blake Hester had a similar experience.
“(Taylor and Roberts) were on me,” Hester said. “Jalon would be like, ‘Blake, you’re going to be a stud. After we graduate, it’s on you.’”
That Tomcat trio sensed a percolating plot-line that has reached fruition. Hester and Stone have proven to be durable, devoted and, at times, dominant.
Hester started Game 1 against Raceland as a ninth-grader — and he tallied seven tackles. Ashland coach Tony Love called Stone’s number by Week 4 against Ironton.
“I was excited, but I was definitely a little bit intimidated,” Stone said. “(Ironton) had two really big defensive tackles. I did what I had to do, and it turned out to be a good season overall.”
Stone has missed only two games since. Hester? None.
Hester suffered a laceration on his arm during a playoff win over Holmes last fall, but he was on the sideline for just a few snaps. He returned with stitches in place.
“To not miss anything is pretty impressive,” Love said. “It says a lot about conditioning and work ethic.”
Said Stone of Hester: “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen.”
Stone sustained a broken right hand as a sophomore. Then a center, he learned to snap like a southpaw in order to shorten sideline time. He ended up returning after two weeks out.
A potential college scholarship drives Stone.
“I want to get my school paid for; I don’t want to get a loan,” he said. Stone’s best offer, to date, is one extended by Murray State.
Morehead State is among schools interested in the versatile Hester. With diminutiveness causing deception, Hester is motivated by some spectators’ perception.
“They’re like, he’s small, he can’t play,” Hester said. “I want to go out there and prove I’m the best. I can play defense, I can return punts and kicks, I can get in the slot, I can run the ball. I go out there and believe I can do anything better than the guy in front of me. That’s how I work.”
Hester was the KFCA Class 4A, District 8 Player of the Year as a sophomore. He gathered 773 rushing yards and six scores on 120 carries while hauling in 14 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns. As a junior, Hester had 594 yards and 16 TDs on 78 rushes. He ranked second on the team in catches (24) as he amassed 431 receiving yards and four trips to paydirt. Hester’s 74 tackles collected as a defensive back placed him fourth among all Tomcats in 2018.
After three years of delivering the ball to the quarterback, Stone is shifting to tackle. He’ll team up with Gary Swiney to create hopeful excitement on the ends.
“Dude, I love it,” Hester said. “I have two of the best linemen in the state blocking for me. What more can a running back want?”
Stone said the feeling is mutual. Keontae Pittman and Hester are game-changing playmakers.
“It’s great being an offensive lineman knowing you got two guys who are so versatile,” Stone said. “It puts less pressure on you because, you know, they can make a big play out of it.”
Stone’s transition to tackle has been exceptionally smooth, Love said.
“John is such a smart kid, he had center down to a science,” said the coach. “Moving out to tackle, it’s challenged him. He’s accepted the challenge. I think he realizes there’s a learning curve that goes with moving from the middle to the edge. It kinda frees him up to come off the ball harder, which is good for us.”
Increased chances for college exposure is a plus, too, said Stone.
“A lot of college coaches have talked to me and said, ‘I want to see you out on pass rush; I want to see you move,’” Stone said. “It’s an opportunity for me to show my athleticism, show coaches I can really move.”
Stone will also play more defense this year. He’s eager to hear P.A. announcer Chuck Rist utter his name at Putnam Stadium.
“I love being on the O-line, but it’s nice getting your name called a few times,” Stone cracked a grin. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Hester and Stone are part of a senior bunch that has recorded 30 wins and only nine losses so far. The Tomcats open the 2019 campaign at Knox Central on Friday.
“Every year, offensively and defensively, we were different,” Love said. “They’ve been that chameleon that’s fit into that group and done a great job. That doesn’t happen very often — one, that you start freshmen here at Ashland; and two, that they come out that good as seniors.”
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