It isn’t easy following an icon.

As new Ashland girls soccer head coach John Cook put it, “I kind of know how Joe B. Hall felt now, trying to replace a legend.”

In Cook’s case, it’s E.B. Lowman who founded the program and coached it with class for 26 years. The LadyCats also won 309 games during that span — third on the state’s all-time coaching list.

Lowman passed the torch to Cook, who worked alongside him the past four years after stints on the Y and club levels.

Cook was coaching a middle school game when Lowman approached him.

“I’m pretty sure I found my replacement,” Cook recalled Lowman telling him. Cook was caught off guard by the next words out of his friend’s mouth: “It’s you.”

“E.B. says he will never forget the (dazed) look on my face,” Cook said.

The transition is proceeding smoothly, according to only the second head coach in LadyCats history.

“I’m very humbled, blessed to be where I am,” Cook said. “E.B. trained me well. I learned a lot from him. First and foremost, with E.B. it’s always been about the kids, not about him. Soccer is this beautiful game we get to use to teach the kids about life. He tried to treat everyone ... officials, other coaches, players with respect and class. That’s probably the things I will take from him.”

 Lowman’s legacy stretched far beyond boundaries of the pitch.

“The soccer world is pretty small, especially around here,” Cook said. “I will run into former players or parents. They all have a story about how E.B. impacted them. What is it that John Wooden said? Good coaches change games, great coaches change lives. I think more than E.B. will ever know he changed so many lives.”

Ashland made a run to the region finals again last season and returns several key players.

“He left me with some talent, that’s for sure,” Cook said. “The girls have treated me with nothing but respect. They knew one day I was going to slide into that spot.”

Cook, 58, first joined the staff during his daughter Jenna’s senior year with the squad. The Ashland standout played two seasons at Morehead State University and is helping out with the LadyCats while finishing her degree in December.

“Jenna’s going to be an assistant coach when she can be there,” John Cook said. “She’s been around the girls and played with them some this summer.”

It’s a family endeavor for the Cooks. John’s wife, Jessie, will take over as Ashland’s statistician — a role that Lowman’s wife, Jody, held for most of E.B.’s coaching career. Jessie was serving as Jody’s assistant.     

Judge Gerald Reams remains on the coaching staff for his 20th year.

Under Cook’s leadership, Ashland continues to emphasize a high standard of conditioning and effort.

“E.B.’s teams were always well-conditioned and we’ve tried to do the same things,” Cook said. “Overall, there are a lot of similarities in what we do. And I have to be the only me I know how to be.”

Ashland’s roster has three sets of twins and all fill key roles.

“Yes, sometimes I get them confused and they quickly set me straight!” Cook said.

Senior Abby Huff provides the LadyCats with a major scoring threat. She tallied 48 goals as a junior while earning second team All-State honors.

“Abby’s as good as there is,” Cook said.

Her sister, Clare, returns from a torn ACL and will be counted upon to anchor a defense hit hard by graduation.

Kaitlin and Reilly McLain combined for 20 goals and 21 assists last season. Meanwhile, Casey and Callie Jackson will have an important place both defensively and along the midfield.

Morgan Bradley led the team with 14 assists a year ago. The addition of other basketball players Mikayla Martin, Sydney Sorrell and Jenna Adkins should also help. Martin is the frontrunner to fill the void left by All-Area goalkeeper Emma Dowdy.

Cook said several team members made a trip to Buffalo Wild Wings in Ironton this summer to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team on TV during its run to the World Cup championship.  

“It was a great mix of seniors down to freshmen,” Cook said.

Ashland’s new leader expects more hard-fought battles against district rivals Russell and Boyd County.

“We try to give each other our best games,” Cook said. “Russell absolutely is the team to beat in the region until somebody knocks them off. They are well-coached and have a great group of kids.”

The Lady Devils are coming off their third consecutive trip to the state’s Elite Eight. Russell said goodbye to All-Area Player of the Year Kynidee Allen and two other All-Area selections, but returns two others — Georgia Arrington and Ainsley Bender — along with other key players.

“We’ve heard so many times throughout the preseason that this is a rebuilding year for us,” Lady Devils coach John Perry said. “I tend to disagree, mainly because at its core, ‘rebuilding’ would indicate we have lost, that we don’t have the tools needed to be competitive.”     

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rstanley@dailyindependent.com