The year: 1967.
The team: Ashland Blazer.
The accomplishment: A Class 2A football state title with an undefeated record against Kentucky competition.
This Friday, the current Ashland Blazer Tomcats will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that squad — the first to win a KHSAA football title in the program’s history — during its home game against Ironton (Ohio).
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That team was a defensive juggernaut, allowing just 86 points all year, an average of 6.1 points per game in 14 contests. It went 13-1, the only loss coming against Stonewall Jackson, a school in Charleston, W.Va., that finished as a state runner-up that year (Jackson consolidated with Charleston High School to form Capital High School in 1989).
Blazer in the 1967 championship game handed Elizabethtown its only loss of the season, 19-14. The Tomcats shut out six opponents that season, including future powers Belfry, 42-0 in the state semifinals, and Covington Catholic, 30-0, in the regular season (fun coincidence: that was the first season of varsity football at CovCath, which this year is celebrating its 50th season ). Jake Hallum, who was the offensive line coach under Jerry Claiborne at the University of Kentucky, was the head coach of that Ashland team.
Keeping the past alive matters to Coach Tony Love, who’s in his fifth year leading the Ashland Blazer football program.
“We take time and like to stress the guys that have made the foundation toward the success of our program and how important it is to carry on with that,” said Love, who frequently welcomes past players to come speak to current ones.
It’s perhaps easier than it’s ever been to get wrapped up in “The Now,” though. The ascent of the Internet has been a game-changer in terms of collecting and dissecting information about the past, but it also provides ample opportunities to get distracted on the way to that enlightenment.
Love said every kid is different; some crave the historical details and some just live for the moment and that’s that.
“I think that’s pretty much true from generation to generation,” Love said. “We do stress to our kids the legacy that they’re part of and that they have an opportunity to continue to build on that. There are certain things that carry over, but they might not think, day to day, of the historic value of what they’re doing.”
A historical impact the current players are making of which they might not be cognizant? Becoming idols for the younger generation; as part of Friday’s festivities, the local Junior Football League kids will also be in attendance and recognized on the field.
“So you kind of have both ends of the spectrum, so to speak,” Love said. “Our guys are right there in the middle and it wasn’t too long ago that they were on the JFL teams that were coming to watch the varsity. We try to tie all that in together.”
Steve Scott (1,211 yards, 11 TDs) and Paul Hill (1,110 yards, 11 TDs) spearheaded an Ashland offense that rushed for 3,837 yards and 39 TDs in 1967. That level of ground performance coupled with its defensive prowess made up two of the three elements of success Love believes are crucial still today.
“You better be disciplined, play great defense and run the ball in order to be successful and put yourself in a position to win,” Love said.
He believes this year’s team is in good shape. It’s off to a 2-2 start — the wins coming against area rivals Raceland and Russell, the losses coming at Harlan County to start the season and against a strong West Virginia opponent — heading into Friday.
This week’s contest is the Tomcats’ last before a string of five straight district games to finish the regular season. The last one — a home date with Johnson Central on Oct. 20 — could decide the Class 4A, District 8 crown for the seventh consecutive season; the last five meetings have gone to the Golden Eagles, the reigning state champs in the class.
Love doesn’t shy away from using Central’s recent dominance as a motivator in the locker room.
“Them being in our district, they’re not gonna come back. They’re gonna continue to get better and stay at the head of the pack,” Love said. “It’s our responsibility and our job to work hard enough to close that gap with ’em. We challenged the guys through the whole offseason and as we go throughout the season to do that. That’s our focus. Until we can get to that level, and we have to get there with hard work, Johnson Central is gonna continue, I think, to be on top of it.”
Friday’s game, like all of Blazer’s home games, will be played at Putnam Stadium, a facility built in 1937 which is in the midst of an extensive multi-million dollar restoration, the first phase of which was completed in 2014.
It’s a bit spiffier than before, but at its core today’s Tomcats play in the same stadium as the 1967 players. That’s a bit of history that’s not lost on any of Love’s players.
“It’s a very special place, and our kids really recognize that probably more so than the wins and losses and the state championships, honestly,” Love said. “They take a lot of pride in going down the Cat Walk through the crowd and getting to play on Friday nights.
“We remind them every Friday night that is an opportunity that not many people have.”