The high school sporting landscape was barren for six months in the middle of 2020.
Northeastern Kentucky sporting figures produced more than enough excitement — most of it positive — to make up for it in the other half of the year. From state championships and individual records to the mere perseverance of athletes and coaches working to make the best of an otherwise difficult year, here are the 10 sports stories The Daily Independent deemed to be of greatest importance in the area in 2020.
10. Miller makes it happen
Ethan Miller entered his senior season at East Carter needing 28 goals to set the 16th Region’s career scoring record. He had only 11 regular season games to do it in, thanks to a slate abbreviated by COVID-19.
But Miller scored four goals in the Raiders’ opener against Greenup County and four more two days later against Morgan County. He pitched in five against Fleming County, hung a hat trick on Ashland and tallied four times against Russell.
Miller reached the mark as part of a trifecta against the Musketeers in the 62nd District Tournament final.
Those turned out to be the final goals of Miller’s high school career. He didn’t tally in the region tournament — East Carter beat Boyd County in the semifinals on kicks from the mark after 90 scoreless minutes and fell to the Tomcats, 2-1, in the final. Patrick McDavid supplied the Raiders’ lone goal.
Miller completed his time in East Carter’s navy, red and white with 109 goals. He cleared Ashland’s Stuart Smith’s mark of 107 that had stood since 1991.
9. Abrupt stop for Greenup
Greenup County ran its boys basketball record to 21-9 on Feb. 21 with a 76-56 win over Fleming County in its regular season finale and was firmly in the conversation of top teams in the 16th Region. By the end of the night, the Musketeers’ stirring bounce-back season had been thrown into turmoil.
In response to a report received from the KHSAA a day earlier, Greenup County suspended coach Robert Amis and assistant Jeff Large and ruled a player ineligible. Rodrell Dryden revealed himself to be that player on social media the next day. Dryden, who transferred to the Musketeers from Woodford County before the season, was the state’s leading rebounder (15.3 per game) and second on the team in scoring (19.0 ppg).
Without Dryden or Amis, Greenup County fell to Lewis County, 79-59, in Lloyd in the first round of the 63rd District Tournament. The Musketeers had split two seeding games with the Lions in the regular season.
Greenup County’s student section dressed as private investigators for the game in a wink at the theory that Lewis County was involved in the KHSAA’s investigation — which has not been publicly confirmed nor refuted. Lewis County’s pep band responded in kind by playing Hall and Oates’s “Private Eyes.”
Amis resigned and is now the coach at Pike County Central. Dryden is a freshman at Bossier Parish (Louisiana) Community College.
8. Russell rises
Russell was one of three 16th Region volleyball teams to post resumes of two region losses or fewer entering the postseason. The Lady Devils drew the other two before they even reached the region final — and that didn’t even count the three-time defending champions.
Russell took care of all three, first knocking off West Carter, 3-0 (25-15, 25-21, 25-16) in the region tournament quarterfinals to avenge an early-season sweep at the hands of the Lady Comets. The Lady Devils then outlasted Boyd County, 3-2 (25-23, 18-25, 25-17, 17-25, 15-11) in a thrilling region semifinal in Olive Hill that ended after 10:30 p.m.
Russell next opposed back-to-back-to-back champ Rowan County in the title match and beat the Valkyries, 3-0 (25-20, 25-19, 25-20) for its first crown since 2012. The Lady Devils went on to sweep Paintsville, 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-19) in the state round of 16, Russell’s first victory at that level since 2008 — when current Lady Devils coach Tiffany Perry was lacing them up as Russell libero Tiffany Botts.
7. Lions pack at top
Boyd County’s boys cross country team has dominated northeastern Kentucky and made consistent runs at state glory in recent autumns. This year, they brought the Lady Lions with them.
Boyd County’s boys placed fourth in the Class 2A state championship meet — they’ve been so strong that’s their worst finish there in three years, after back-to-back runner-up showings. The Boyd County girls came in fifth, their highest placement at State since 1986.
Lions junior JB Terrill was third in the boys race in 16:41.89, which is believed to be the top State individual finish in program history. Junior Sophia Newsome placed sixth, coming home in 20:09.63. That’s the best finish by a Lady Lion since 1987.
The race was moved from the Kentucky Horse Park, its home for four decades-plus, to Bourbon County and contested on a Friday afternoon for COVID-19-related reasons.
6. Region full of hoopers
Russell and Boyd County met up for the 16th Region Tournament girls basketball title on March 7, and seeing those two at the top is nothing new.
The Lady Devils and Lady Lions emerged from an exceptionally deep field to do it.
Six region teams won at least 20 games. Russell (26-8), Boyd County (20-12), West Carter (22-8), Rowan County (22-11), Ashland (20-11) and Fairview (21-8) helped the 16th Region accomplish that feat for the first time since 2013-14.
Five of those programs boast strong pedigrees — either current, traditional or both. The outlier was the Lady Eagles, who entered the radar by winning their first 10 games, ending a nine-year winless skid in the All “A” Classic region event and beating two eventual region tournament participants. They ultimately couldn’t emerge from a loaded 64th District field.
Boyd County beat West Carter and Russell slipped past Rowan County in the region tournament semifinals before the Lady Devils ended the Lady Lions’ three-year hold on the region title, 75-57, in what turned out to be Russell’s final game of the season.
COVID-19 wiped out the Sweet Sixteen mere hours before the Lady Devils were scheduled to take the Rupp Arena floor.
5. Give me five!
Numerous northeastern Kentucky football programs boast at least a few sensational seasons. Never before 2020 did as many of them happen at the same time.
Four area teams — Ashland, West Carter, Johnson Central and Paintsville — competed in the state semifinals, which had never happened before in the same year. And all of those games were played at home.
That produced a drama-filled Friday night, Dec. 11, in northeastern Kentucky. Ashland bulled past Belfry, 10-3, and Paintsville topped Newport Central Catholic, 21-7, in what was a one-score game until the final minutes. Both earned trips to the state final as a result.
The Comets fell short of that goal, but they played in the wildest game of the night. Upstart West Carter, only five years removed from its first postseason win in school history, played host in the Class 2A final four to blue-blooded Beechwood. The Comets spotted the Tigers a quick 20-point advantage, then surged back to lead on two occasions in the fourth quarter before succumbing to the eventual state champions, 35-34.
The Golden Eagles also fell behind, 20-0, early before rallying within one score of Franklin County in the final minute with the ball. Johnson Central came up short, 20-12, ending its streak of consecutive state final appearances at five.
Ironton added to the area’s success by making Ohio’s Division V state final for the second consecutive season. The Fighting Tigers’ semifinal win over Roger Bacon wasn’t on the same weekend as its Kentucky colleagues’ semifinal appearances, as it would have been ordinarily, because the OHSAA began its season earlier than the KHSAA in a response to the coronavirus.
4. Tigers’ turn
Newly minted centenarian Paintsville could have been forgiven for thinking its next best chance at its first state football championship would be in year 101. The Tigers, after winning their first five games, lost at Raceland on a field goal as time expired, then dropped an 18-7 decision at Letcher County Central in their regular season finale.
It got worse: quarterback Jake Hyden was diagnosed with a torn knee ligament after those back-to-back losses, putting his return for the playoffs in serious doubt.
To everyone except himself and his teammates.
Paintsville got past the Rams in a rematch on the road in overtime — Raceland and its backers still say the Tigers fumbled on what was ruled the only touchdown of OT, but the call stood and Paintsville moved on, 28-21.
No one else scored more than once against an inspired Tigers defense the rest of the way. Paintsville knocked off Hazard, 39-7, and Newport Central Catholic, 21-7, to get to Kroger Field, where the Tigers took down Kentucky Country Day, 38-7.
Hyden returned in the state semifinals and ran for three TDs in the final against the Bearcats. Karsten Poe, who took over at QB at the outset of the playoffs, Luke Hyden and Harris Phelps filled out a strong rushing attack behind Paintsville’s gargantuan and skilled offensive line.
The result was the Tigers’ first title in their 100th year of football.
3. ’Cats spin a yarn
Ashland built momentum in 2019 with its run to a 16th Region Tournament title and a Sweet Sixteen first-round victory in Rupp Arena. The Tomcats kept right on rolling last winter.
Ashland won all 33 games it played, recording this region’s first undefeated record through the region tournament in 92 years. The Tomcats did it with balance — four of their five starters averaged in double figures in points — and with exceptional perimeter shooting and passing.
Not to mention healthy doses of drama and flair. Ashland had won six games decided by two possessions or fewer ahead of a trip to Olive Hill for its penultimate regular-season game, which proved to be the wildest of all.
The Tomcats trailed West Carter by double digits deep into the fourth quarter before a furious rally that Cole Villers ended with a tiebreaking 60-footer at the buzzer to lift Ashland over the Comets, 57-54.
Villers’s shot landed him on SportsCenter, and it liberated Ashland from the pressure of its undertaking. Save a stiff test from Boyd County in the 64th District Tournament final, the Tomcats routed everyone else the rest of the way.
Ashland blew away 26-win Rowan County, 67-39, in the region tournament semifinals before overwhelming second-time region finalist Lewis County, 84-60, in Morehead in the title game.
That set up Ashland as the first area team to enter the state tournament undefeated since the 1928 Tomcats did it. That team won the state title, and Ashland’s 2019-20 bunch sought to join it. It never happened — six days before the boys Sweet Sixteen was set to begin, the event was first postponed and later canceled as the COVID-19 pandemic picked up steam.
The 2019-20 Tomcats will forever be undefeated — and forever wonder what their fate might have been on the state’s biggest stage.
2. Making list, checking twice
Ending droughts is what Ashland does under coach Tony Love. The Tomcats’ accomplishments in recent years read like a checklist.
First district title in six years in 2017? Check. First trip to the third round of the playoffs in 12 seasons in 2016? Got it. First double-digit win season since 1990? Marked off in 2017. First consecutive victories against interstate measuring stick Ironton since the 1970s? And then some — the Tomcats’ win streak in that series stands at five.
This season brought the best of all: Ashland’s first state championship in 30 years, its first undefeated season since 1958 and its first perfect campaign — no losses nor ties — since 1942.
The Tomcats breezed through an abbreviated schedule until a rematch with archrival Russell in the district championship game. Ashland found the going much tougher than its 41-7 regular-season win over the Red Devils, but the Tomcats edged Russell, 10-7, before handling Fleming County, 42-0, in the third round.
Then came the semifinals and Belfry, which put a running clock on the Tomcats on Pond Creek a year ago. That was the latest of a series of struggles for Ashland against physical mountain teams in the deep rounds of the postseason in recent years.
The Tomcats had no intention of being bullied again, which Love signified by giving speedy back Keontae Pittman a sledgehammer to carry with him everywhere he went the week before the game. The message was clear, and so was the result.
In high drama at Putnam Stadium, Ashland out-bruised the Pirates, 10-3, to get to Lexington and the state final.
It seemed almost anticlimactic compared to the emotion and intensity of the game before, but Ashland completed its run with a 35-14 victory over Elizabethtown.
Pittman was named the state coaches association’s Class 3A Player of the Year and won MVP honors for the state final.
1. Frustration and perseverance
No war, outbreak, event or social trend — aside from desegregation and school consolidation — has affected northeastern Kentucky high school sports more in a century than a coronavirus believed to have jumped from the animal kingdom to humanity some 7,500 miles from Ashland.
COVID-19, through either actual infection or measures aimed at slowing its spread, cost nine area teams in four sports the culmination of their postseasons. Ashland, at 33-0, was denied an attempt to complete the first undefeated season for an area boys basketball team in 92 years. Russell’s girls were in Rupp Arena readying for their first-round Sweet Sixteen game when they learned the tournament had been postponed (later canceled). Rowan County’s football team was forsaken a trip it had earned to its first state quarterfinal in 38 years.
The pandemic also stripped the entire spring season, save a handful of tennis matches completed before the KHSAA postponed play in March and canceled it in April. And it pushed back the beginning of 2020-21 winter sports to at least January.
It wasn’t all bad: the overwhelming majority of area high school fall sports teams were able to get in at least most of a full season with some semblance of safety, providing athletes, coaches, administrators and fans a much-needed outlet from the frustration of a global pandemic.
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