As has become common in recent years, multiple northeastern Kentucky programs came from figurative nowhere to make their presence felt at the state level in 2021.
The past year, however, also carried more than its share of heartbreak for area sporting figures and communities.
2021 was a second straight year unlike any others in recent memory. A unique period of 12 months contained its share of dramatic and memorable moments, for reasons both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.
10. Delayed Gratification for Rams
Raceland’s baseball players, coaches and fans likely had reason to be among the most disappointed at the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. The 2020 Rams were projected among not only the top teams in the 16th Region, but to be one of the school’s best teams ever.
As it turned out, Raceland just waited a year to fulfill those expectations.
The Rams won their first region tournament title in 30 years by run-ruling Ashland, 11-1. That outing capped a remarkable week for Raceland’s offense — the Rams outscored their three region tournament opponents 39-1.
Raceland led Whitley County on two occasions in the semi-state round, but the Colonels prevailed, 6-5.
9. Long May They Run
One of the most consistently dominant programs in recent years in northeastern Kentucky — Boyd County’s cross country and track and field distance groups — produced a pair of individual state champions in 2021.
Boyd County’s JB Terrill — perhaps better known for cross country — won the Class 2A 800-meter boys title in a state-record 1:54.25.
A little over four months later, the Lions’ Sophia Newsome collected the girls state cross country crown in 19:17.68. Boyd County’s boys and girls both posted top-five team finishes at Bourbon County.
Ashland’s Emma Latherow (Class 2A girls discus) and Thomas Skaggs (2A boys pole vault) and Morgan County’s Krista Perry (Class A girls 100 hurdles and 300 hurdles) also claimed individual state track titles.
8. All You Need Is Love
Tony Love didn’t become one of the most notable coaches in the history of one of the state’s most tradition-laden programs with theatrics or an attention-grabbing personality.
That happened because, simply put, his Tomcats won.
Ashland’s program hadn’t slipped to the middle of the pack, exactly, when Love took it over in 2013, but the Tomcats were a little closer to it than they liked.
Under a workmanlike coach with a hard-nosed mentality, Ashland ended extended droughts from the third round of the postseason (12 years, until 2016) and without a double-digit winning season (27 years, until 2017).
Those were precursors to the big one: Ashland’s first state title in 30 years in 2020.
By the time Love retired in December, the Tomcats had won 81 of their 110 games under his leadership, giving him the highest winning percentage in program history among coaches who roamed Putnam Stadium’s sideline at least as long as he did.
7. Devils Back in Fast Layne
Before April 8, the last time Russell’s girls basketball team left Rupp Arena, it was in tears and frustration. Not because the Red Devils had lost, but because they’d lost their chance to play in the 2020 Sweet Sixteen due to the pandemic.
Russell wasn’t going out like that again in 2021.
The Red Devils picked up their first State win since 1976 by knocking off Dixie Heights, 58-44, in Lexington.
Russell’s season ended a night later with a 64-53 loss to Henderson County in the state quarterfinals, but the Red Devils’ win over Dixie extended their string of 20-win seasons to six — the longest such active streak in the 16th Region.
6. Raiders Experience Hardware
Being one of just 12 schools in Kentucky to host a state football semifinal is impressive enough, but that distinction doesn’t do enough to explain how special that moment — and a season full of firsts like it — was for East Carter.
The Raiders entered 2021 without a district championship since 1983. Ending that drought would require at some point beating either Ashland — the defending state champion that had never lost to East Carter — or Russell, which the Raiders had only ever defeated once.
Both programs boast a much richer tradition than East Carter. But both took a back seat to the Raiders in 2021.
East Carter dropped the Red Devils on Oct. 22 to earn the top seed in Class 3A, District 7. Three weeks later, the Raiders took down the Tomcats in the district title game.
East Carter went on to win its first region championship by beating Mason County, earning the right to host mighty Belfry in the state semifinals.
Even though the Pirates ended the Raiders’ dream season en route to the state crown, it was a building-block moment for an East Carter program that had the state’s longest playoff drought as recently as 2018.
5. Lions Hungry
Just five years removed from a winless season, Boyd County had firmly established itself as one of the 16th Region’s top volleyball programs entering 2021. But the Lions hadn’t claimed the region’s top billing in 17 years.
Boyd County had come oh-so-close in the three previous seasons, with a pair of losses in the region tournament final before a five-set heartbreaker in the region semis against Russell in 2020.
As it turned out, the Lions were destined to do more than simply end that drought.
Boyd County carried an undefeated record — save a pesky COVID-19 cancellation forfeit loss to West Carter, which coach Katee Neltner habitually tagged with an asterisk in social media posts and which the Lions avenged in a region tournament sweep — into the state quarterfinals.
Opponents only took Boyd County to five sets twice all year — both times by Russell in the regular season.
A region final rematch had no such drama as the Lions dusted the defending region champion Red Devils, 3-0, for Boyd County’s first crown since 2003.
The Lions swept Floyd Central in the semi-state round before finding that fate themselves in the State second round against mighty Mercy, which finished as state runner-up.
Until that match, the Lions won 18 postseason sets and conceded just one.
4. Lewis Pioneer
Lewis County has long had a skilled softball program with the misfortune to be aligned into one of the stoutest districts around. The Lions began play two seasons ago having lost 61 of their previous 64 games against 63rd District competition despite hovering over or above .500 during most seasons of that stretch.
Observers could be forgiven for wondering if another promising Lewis County season was about to fizzle down the stretch. The Lions, who had started the year 14-1, dropped seven of nine to conclude the regular season, with a date with a Greenup County club that had run-ruled Lewis County in their previous meeting looming in the district tournament semifinals.
But the Lions beat the Musketeers, 4-1, and were off and running. Lewis County, which had never so much as played in a region tournament final, rode that wave all the way to the state semifinals.
Along the way, the Lions beat Boyd County in a an epic 12-inning thriller in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals, topped Ashland in their first region final, defeated Wolfe County in their maiden voyage to the state tournament and took out seventh-ranked Boyle County in the quarterfinals at John Cropp Stadium.
Directing it all was coach Joe Hampton, who had retired as Lewis County’s boys basketball coach a year earlier with no region titles in 21 years. He went 1-for-1 in region crowns as softball bench boss before hanging it up again in August.
3. Tomcats Take Their Place
Ashland’s 2019-20 boys basketball team carried an undefeated record into the Sweet Sixteen, but that was as far as it went — not because the Tomcats lost, but because the pandemic wiped out the boys state tournament before it began.
That team will never know how it might have fared at Rupp Arena. Its successor did, and found it favorable — Ashland’s first trip to the state semifinals in 25 years.
The Tomcats assembled dramatic comebacks in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals against West Carter and title game against Rowan County to gain passage to Lexington. Once there, Ashland bludgeoned its first two opponents, Knox Central and Boyle County, to earn a rematch with Highlands.
The Bluebirds had beaten the Tomcats in the season opener in Fort Thomas on Jan. 4 and did so again at Rupp Arena to end Ashland’s season two wins shy of a state title.
If that ending felt untimely for the Tomcats, it was closer than they’d been to the big trophy in a quarter of a century. And Ashland returns a loaded team this winter to make another run at that glory.
2. Jordan Crosses Over
Cam Planck is by any measure one of the best baseball players northeastern Kentucky has produced. The Rowan County pitcher signed a $1 million contract with the New York Mets right out of high school in 2016.
But Planck has no delusions, he said, of having been the most talented hardball player of his era in the 16th Region.
That distinction belonged to Ben Jordan, a fireballing pitcher for West Carter who also moonlighted as a towering presence in the middle for the Comets’ basketball team.
“There was nobody that could come close to anything he could do,” Planck said of his fellow ace from Olive Hill. “He was better than anything anybody had seen.”
Jordan got a couple of opportunities to show it on the big stage, pitching a scoreless inning at Wrigley Field in the 2016 Under Armour All-America Game before another appearance later that summer at Petco Park in San Diego in the Perfect Game All-American Classic.
But tragically, Jordan’s immense promise will never be realized beyond those outings and his mastery in Comets maroon or University of Kentucky blue. He died Jan. 11 at age 22.
Tributes poured in from across the commonwealth, from Kentucky’s basketball program and John Calipari bringing a summer satellite camp to the gym Jordan once dominated, to the renaming of the field of his hometown Little League in his memory.
1. Matney Flies High
Johnson Central’s football program progressed under coach Jim Matney to the point that “only” a state semifinal berth in 2020 was unfulfilling, and Matney didn’t mind admitting it in the 2021 preseason.
“There is no doubt about it. It’s motivated me for sure,” Matney said in August of the Golden Eagles missing a 2020 trip to Kroger Field, after having reached the state final in the five previous seasons. “The program is going to get more out of me than it has in many years.”
In a way, Johnson Central did, although not how anyone in black and gold would have hoped. The Golden Eagles indeed took Matney’s motivation to heart in making it back to Lexington for the state final, but regrettably, Matney didn’t get to make the trip with them.
The molder of Johnson Central’s football and wrestling programs into state elite-level units died Sept. 28 after an extended bout with COVID-19 and its complications. He was 62 — long enough to have lived a life enriched by athletic success, family and using his platform to motivate Appalachian youth to achieve beyond the limits stereotype and sociology may have imposed; but without the twilight years to enjoy what he’d built, and with two children still of school age.
The Golden Eagles dedicated “every down of every game,” as Johnson Central High School principal Justin Arms put it, to Matney’s memory. Johnson Central won nine straight games to get back to the Class 4A state final, with each victory by 18 points or more. The Golden Eagles finally ran out of steam at Kroger Field, falling to Boyle County, 30-13.
Johnson Central introduced longtime Matney assistant Jesse Peck as its new football coach on the fifth-to-last day of 2021.
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