On the evening of March 3 in Ashland’s locker room at Morehead State, moments after the Tomcats knocked off Boyd County in the 16th Region Tournament final to claim their first trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 17 years, Ashland coach Jason Mays reminded his team what it represented.
Distilled to five words, the message was: “It has to matter more” — more because the Tomcats are the winningest team in Kentucky history, and because they carried the weight of a sports-crazed city that hadn’t experienced state-level boys basketball success in a generation.
“Part of this was me just sort of reaching back and saying, ‘Guys, this is who we are,’” Mays said. “‘These are your ancestors, from a Tomcat standpoint. This has to mean more than it does to these other teams that don’t have that tradition.’”
The Tomcats improbably authored the newest chapter of that lore. Mays, their first-year bench boss, garnered The Daily Independent All-Area Coach of the Year honors for presiding over a turnaround from eight losses in Ashland’s last 12 regular- season games to, three weeks later, celebrating a victory over Owensboro in Rupp Arena.
The Tomcats needed a missed layup at the buzzer by Lewis County to survive the region tournament quarterfinal. From that point forward, Ashland assembled three eye-catching wins in a span of six days: against prohibitive region favorite Elliott County, the Tomcats rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit to stun the Lions, 69-65, in overtime in the region semifinal, and Ashland handled Boyd County, 59-43, in the title game.
That got the Tomcats to the state tournament for the first time since 2002. There Ashland came back one more time: trailing Owensboro by a point entering the fourth quarter, the Tomcats toppled the Red Devils, 58-50.
Mays isn’t the only All-Area figure who found success through a significant life change. For Korbin Spencer, it was like a change back: the Elliott County stud returned to Sandy Hook for his senior season after a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
The Pikeville signee amassed 28.4 points per game — third-most in the state — and 7.5 rebounds per game. He is the All-Area Player of the Year, in addition to winning the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches 16th Region Player of the Year. Re-joining his teammates made for a fun and meaningful senior season, Spencer said.
“I wanted to be in front of my hometown, playing in front of my family because you’ll never be able to experience that stuff again,” Spencer said. “I was very thankful that I was able to come back. It was like I was right back at home again.”
Junior Sam O’ Keefe put in 18.5 ppg and 7.1 rpg through 22 games for 63rd District Tournament titlist Lewis County. Senior Jordan Brooks (15.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) represents East Carter, freshman Colby Fugate delivered 16.8 ppg and 7.1 rpg for Paintsville, and Fairview senior Garrett Greene notched 15.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg. Junior Braden Leadingham collected 13.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg for West Carter, and Russell junior Tristan Miller dropped in 14.7 ppg while hitting 42.9 percent of his 3s. Greenup County junior Brady Nelson posted 17.7 ppg and 3.6 rpg. Bath County senior Chandler Otis netted 15.2 ppg and 5.9 rpg, and senior Travis Trimble represented Menifee County with 16.3 ppg and 8.4 rpg.
The newspaper’s sports department selected the Player and Coach of the Year. The team is assembled by northeastern Kentucky coaches’ votes.
2018-19 ALL-AREA BOYS BASKETBALL TEAM
Jordan Brooks (East Carter) Tanner Dickerson (Elliott Co.) Blake Evans (Morgan Co.) Colby Fugate (Paintsville) Garrett Greene (Fairview) Jake Helton (Morgan Co.) Braden Leadingham (West Carter) Brady Madden (Rowan Co.) Isaiah May (Johnson Central) Tyler Maynard (Lawrence Co.) Greg Mershon (Raceland) Tristan Miller (Russell) Mason Moore (Rowan Co.) Brady Nelson (Greenup Co.) Sam O’Keefe (Lewis Co.) Chandler Otis (Bath Co.) Kirk Pence (Raceland) Jacob Rice (Johnson Central) Devaunte Robinson (Ashland) Korbin Spencer (Elliott Co.) Blake Stewart (Boyd Co.) Talbott Taylor (Boyd Co.) Travis Trimble (Menifee Co.)
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Korbin Spencer (Elliott Co.)
COACH OF THE YEAR
Jason Mays (Ashland)
HONORABLE MENTION ASHLAND — Ethan Hudson, Ethan Sellars, Cole Villers. BOYD COUNTY — Carson Webb. ELLIOTT COUNTY — Gage Evans. FAIRVIEW — Noah King. FLEMING COUNTY — Cole Saunders. JOHNSON CENTRAL — Cory VanHoose. LAWRENCE COUNTY — Cody Maynard. LEWIS COUNTY — Seth Wright. PAINTSVILLE — Nick Keeton, Seth Williams. RACELAND — Kyle Adkins, Andrew Floyd. ROSE HILL CHRISTIAN — Stephan Barker, Kenny Wilburn. RUSSELL — Charlie Jachimczuk. WEST CARTER — Ethan Adkins, Rodney Evans, Tyson Webb.