It only took Leon Hart one season to develop an appreciation for what was then a broiling-hot annual encounter.
“We’ve got some other games in our area that are big games, but none like Boyd County,” the then-first-year Ashland coach said after a playoff win over the Lions in 2003. “This is the granddaddy of them all.”
Sixteen years later, in the same facility, another rookie to the rivalry had a very different experience.
Boyd County, in its second game under Evan Ferguson on Aug. 30, 2019, dropped a 53-7 decision in Putnam Stadium.
Instead of explaining it away as growing pains, Ferguson seethed — and made sure the Lions remembered.
“We actually took a picture of the scoreboard that night and we shared it with our kids,” Ferguson said. “That was the worst I’ve ever been beat in my life, ever. I’ve never been beat like that any time I ever played anywhere. It was horrible.
“The state of the program — that’s not trying to bash anybody — but it was in a really bad place. We worked hard trying to make sure we got out of that place.”
It was a place a long time coming. Boyd County hasn’t beaten the Tomcats since pasting them in the 2003 regular-season finale. Ashland claimed a postseason rematch two weeks later, and the Lions only came closer than 31 points to the Tomcats twice between 2008 and 2019, and never closer than 20. From 2016-19, the final margins were 48, 67, 48 and 46.
2020 provided a year off from the rivalry due to COVID-19. Ashland won the Class 3A state championship, but Boyd County was also busy — winning its first playoff game in 12 years, and becoming the first area team to win in the postseason as a No. 4 seed since 2003. (That was the same Lions club that won at Bell County to cause the rematch with Ashland that produced Hart’s comment.)
Boyd County showcased its program’s progress Friday night by leading the Tomcats deep into the fourth quarter before falling, 10-7. It was the first competitive Ashland-Boyd County game in a decade and a half, and the Lions’ work to make it so impressed Ferguson’s opposite number.
“It’s not good for my heart to be in a nail-biter,” Tomcats coach Tony Love cracked. “I’d rather have a blowout here, but it’s a testament to (Boyd County). They won several ball games and they won a road playoff game last year, and they’re gonna win several ball games this year as well.”
Ferguson, who participated in several county rivalry games while quarterbacking and then coaching Coal Grove, relished being part of a close one on Friday, even if he’d much rather it turned out differently.
“I think we live in an era where we don’t get to have that small-town pride like we used to,” Ferguson said, “when you play where you live at and where you grew up; you take your bunch of guys and you play the town down the road, their bunch of guys, and you got 365 days to brag about it until you do it again next year. There’s nothing like that.”
Boyd County-Ashland is an archrivalry in nearly every other sport. Here’s hoping Friday was the first step toward restoring their football series to a yearly can’t-miss event.
• Based on video review, it is indisputable that Ashland had 12 men on the field (one more than allowed) on its lone touchdown of Friday’s game at Boyd County, a 30-yard Terell Jordan receiving TD that provided the Tomcats’ winning points with 5:10 remaining (as well as on the play before).
Here’s a series of statements about Friday’s late-game sequences that are not indisputable, but which we believe to be true (remembering here that multiple things can be true at the same time):
1. Ashland should have been penalized and the touchdown nullified, and because it wasn’t, the Tomcats’ likelihood of winning increased dramatically, particularly because of their earlier struggles with ball security.
2. It is inaccurate to say that simply because Ashland’s winning points came on a play that should have been disallowed, Boyd County is the certain rightful winner. The play in question was only on second down, and with more than five minutes of game time still left.
3. The missed call did not determine the outcome of the game. Both teams had a full dump truck’s worth of missed opportunities (which does not take away from their effort).
4. The missed call could scarcely have come at a worse time for a Boyd County team that played its tail off in search of a program-changing win and likely deserved it, and it made the Lions’ attempt to secure it significantly more difficult.
5. It is virtually impossible to tell from the angle of MyTownTV’s broadcast (through no fault of their own), as it was for my naked eye from atop the press box on Friday, whether Ashland’s Vinincio Palladino and/or Bailey Thacker were either down or across the goal line before losing fumbles into the Boyd County end zone. (Meaning, the 12 men on the field going undetected later on may not have been as simple as the breaks evening out, as some have claimed.)
6. Being a referee has a much higher degree of difficulty than people who have never done it give it credit for, and it is not nearly worth the money at the high school level, especially since readily available video streaming of games has become commonplace.
7. It’s too bad (though understandable) that, in many quarters, this has overshadowed a tremendous football game.
• What may have looked like chaos on the final play on Friday at Tanks Memorial Stadium was instead an intentional product of preparation.
So said Trevon Pendleton, whose Ironton club pulled out a 13-10 victory over Jackson on Ty Perkins’s 78-yard kickoff return after two laterals on the final play of the game.
“Our kids, we’ve preached to them since Day 1, until the clock strikes zero, turn the scoreboard off,” the Fighting Tigers’ coach said. “The only thing we need to see is the time, how much time we got left.”
On Friday, it was just 1.4 seconds, after the Ironmen’s Ethan Crabtree kicked a 22-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead. Ironton didn’t concede: Braxton Pringle bent over to field a squib kick at his own 27-yard line and lateraled to Landen Wilson at the Tigers’ 23.
Wilson stayed on his feet as long as possible before tossing it behind him to Perkins, who made a couple of cuts, broke a tackle, reversed field and outran two other Ironmen to the house. Pendleton credited Aiden Young and Jake Sloan with key blocks on the return.
“The benefit on being the return team on that is, one guy can really be exhausting himself while exhausting their entire team,” Pendleton said. “They’re all chasing one guy, so we try to reverse field on that a lot, and that’s what you saw Landen Wilson do.
“You see so many games end in that situation where a guy just gets tackled eventually, and our biggest thing in that situation is, we never get tackled with the ball in our hands. I don’t care if there’s a guy to pitch it to or not, we’re gonna throw it backwards and go try to make a play on it.”
Perkins, in his first year at Ironton after transferring from Lucasville Valley, authored a dramatic finish to only his second game in black and orange.
“Just for his confidence level and to gain that trust in his own abilities and his teammates’ trust in him,” Pendleton said, “to step up in that big situation and make a play to ultimately win us the game was awesome.”
• West Carter averaged 39.3 points per game last season, but that hasn’t changed Daniel Barker’s resolution in the Comets’ foundation.
“Last year was kind of an aberration for us, scoring that many points,” Barker said. “We’re a defense-first program. That’s what we do.”
It worked for West Carter on Friday in a 6-0 victory at Fleming County. It was the fewest points for the Comets in a win since beating Fairview, 3-0, in 1977. And it was tied for the fewest points by any northeastern Kentucky team in a victory since Oct. 1, 2010, when Boyd County topped East Carter, 3-0. (Paintsville also won, 6-0, against Raceland on Oct. 19, 2018.)
West Carter’s defense came up big in a matchup of defending district champions.
“I don’t think you go into a game against an opponent like that and expect to shut them out,” Barker said of the Panthers, “but we talked to our kids and said, it’s gonna take what it takes. ... It took a shutout, and that’s what we had to do to win.”
Eli Estepp and Cole Crampton hooked up for a 25-yard TD in the third quarter for the game’s only points. The Comets were hampered by penalties and issues with the snap, Barker said, but expect to get their offense in order.
“I thought offensively we did more good things this week than we did the week before,” Barker said of West Carter’s 23-21 loss to Rowan County in Week 1. “That’s weird to say when you only score six, but I thought there was some progress there.”
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.