The Top 10 NEKY Sports Stories of 2022: A game-changing year

Jan. 2—The world seemingly returned more or less to normal in 2022.

In northeastern Kentucky sporting circles, "normal" is high achievement on a stage larger than this area, by both traditional powers and the occasional out-of-the-blue upstart.

2022 featured plenty of that, but rarely is a comprehensive and credible list of the 10 most impactful stories of any statistically significant sample size 100% positive. This one is no exception, thanks to dramatic developments in one of northeastern Kentucky's most prominent high school athletic programs.

10. A spike in achievement

Paintsville and Boyd County had already established themselves among eastern Kentucky's volleyball elite coming into this season.

On Halloween night, the Tigers and Lions played host to a state-level spotlight.

Thanks to RPI, tiny Paintsville hosted tony Notre Dame and for one night largely stood toe-to-toe with the Pandas.

Notre Dame produced a sweep, but the Tigers played two sets within 25-21 — among the toughest the Pandas faced all postseason on their way to their 10th state title.

At about the same time in Cannonsburg, Boyd County brought brooms to Bishop Brossart, winning a home state first-round match for the second consecutive season.

The Tigers went 38-3, including a 26-0 mark against 15th Region opposition, and claimed their first-ever All "A" Classic state title. The Lions were 37-5 overall and 19-0 versus the 16th Region.

9. Terrill back on track

JB Terrill already owned a state track and field 800-meter championship entering his senior season.

Boyd County's stud distance runner, however, wasn't content — he didn't achieve the finish he'd sought at state cross country — and he wasn't completely healthy either. Terrill's hamstring was injured and, he found out the day after the Class 2A state meet, he was positive for COVID-19.

It didn't matter. Terrill set the meet record in the 800 — withstanding a push from local friendly rival Davis Brown of Russell — in 1 minute, 54.02 seconds to claim a second state crown.

Terrill went on to run at Louisville. He is one of four members of Boyd County's Class of 2022 who continued distance-running careers at the Division I level, joining Sophia Newsome (Marshall), Grant Chaffin (Marshall) and Gavin Brock (Morehead State).

8. Lions continue roar

In the follow-up to its stunning 2021 run to the state semifinals, Lewis County's softball team couldn't replicate that level of advancement in Lexington. But the Lions were more dominant locally than they were one spring earlier and capped their season with an instant classic, even if it didn't turn out how they'd have liked.

Lewis County went 18-0 against 16th Region competition as part of a 31-win season — a school record across all sports.

As part of a series of highly competitive postseason encounters, the Lions opened region tournament play with a high-wire 6-5 nine-inning victory over Rowan County.

That later paled in comparison to the state tournament first round, in which Lewis County and Harrison County carried zeroes into the 13th inning before the Fillies won in walk-off fashion.

Lions ace Emily Cole threw 257 pitches in that game. The penultimate batter resulted in Cole's 1,000th career strikeout. She signed in November to continue her career at Marshall University in 2024.

7. Boyd gets red-hot

Boyd County lost its first three baseball games — including to Greenup County and Rowan County by a combined 20-3 — of the season and was 5-7 coming back from its annual spring break beach trip.

These Lions, early on, hardly seemed an obvious candidate to collect the first state tournament win in 17 years for one of northeastern Kentucky's most accomplished programs.

But Boyd County did. The Lions won 21 of their last 24 games, including a 2-0 victory in the 16th Region Tournament final over the same Vikings they'd lost to twice in the regular season. Boyd County followed that at Kentucky Proud Park with a 3-0 elimination of Danville, the state's seventh-ranked team.

Pitcher Jake Biggs allowed four hits to Rowan County and just one to the Admirals.

6. Concluding careers

Two of northeastern Kentucky's top high school coaches stepped away in 2022.

Bill Bradley retired in March after his 42nd year as a coach culminated in Ashland's girls basketball team reaching the 16th Region Tournament final.

The Kittens handed Bradley his 400th win as a coach late in his final season. He led Ashland to a region tournament four-peat from 2012-15, including a trip to the 2014 state tournament semifinals. Bradley also served as skipper of Holy Family's boys basketball and Boyd County's softball programs during a coaching career that dated to 1977.

Greg Logan stepped down as Greenup County's baseball coach in September, concluding a 16-year stint that included six 16th Region Tournament titles, 11 63rd District Tournament crowns and the championship of the inaugural Kentucky 2A Section 5 Tournament last spring. Logan skippered the Musketeers to the 2015 state semifinals.

Logan turned the program over to Steve Logan, his younger brother by 12 years.

Each coach garnered a meaningful honor early in their post-coaching lives. Logan was revealed as a member of the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame's next class in December. Bradley shared the Distinguished Tomcat Award announced at the Ashland Invitational Tournament last week.

5. Grass greener for Greenup

Greenup County hadn't won a football game on the field in some 22 months when the Musketeers huddled up before a critical fourth down in their season opener on Aug. 19.

Rather than give the ball back to surging Fleming County with just a one-point lead in the final moments, Greenup County coach Zack Moore decided the Musketeers would run a fake punt from their own 36-yard line with less than three minutes to play.

It worked. Carson Wireman hit Jayce Griffith for nine yards on fourth-and-6. The Musketeers finished off a 34-33 victory over the Panthers and were off and running.

Coming off a 1-9 2021 season — and the "1" was from a COVID-19 forfeit — Greenup County went 8-5. The Musketeers claimed their most wins in 24 years and advanced to the third round of the postseason for the first time in 15 seasons.

It was made known in the preseason that it would be Moore's final season leading Greenup County, due to his acceptance of an assistant principal job and the district's policy forbidding administrators from coaching. Due to the lateness of the decision, Moore was permitted to coach the 2022 season, and it resulted in his being named the Class 3A state Coach of the Year by the Kentucky Football Coaches Association.

Ashland and Boyd County joined the Musketeers as high-achieving area teams. The Tomcats rebounded from a 2-4 start to win their next seven games and reach the Class 3A state semifinals. The Lions came back from a 3-7 campaign in 2021 to go 8-4, claiming both their first district championship and their first home playoff win since 2008.

4. End of an era

A significant chunk of the Ashland boys basketball teams that went 33-0 in 2019-20 and reached the state semifinals in 2021 returned last winter for one last go at the 16th Region's first Sweet Sixteen title in six decades.

The 2021-22 Tomcats didn't reach that lofty aim, finally running out of dramatic comebacks against a skilled and considerably bigger Covington Catholic team in the first round of the state tournament.

But Ashland did continue its domination of the 16th Region and produced a sensational mid-season run to keep itself in the conversation of the state's top teams.

Russell ended Ashland's 43-game winning streak against region opponents in the third-to-last outing of the regular season. The Tomcats then reeled off eight straight Ws, the penultimate of which was their customary escape at Ellis T. Johnson Arena, a 59-55 region tournament semifinal decision over resurgent Bath County.

Ashland followed that with an 84-55 victory against Boyd County in the championship game to secure the first region four-peat since the Tomcats won five consecutive crowns from 1976-80.

After the setback to the Colonels, Ashland graduated four starters — Colin Porter, Cole Villers, Ethan Sellars and Ryan Atkins.

Villers and Sellars were pivotal pieces in each of the four state tournament runs, and Porter keyed three of them. Villers and Porter, who graduated a year early, went on to Division I basketball careers.

3. Ramming back to carpet

High expectations surrounded Raceland, returning 19 of 22 offensive and defensive starters from its fourth trip to the Class A state football semifinals in nine years, from the get-go. The Rams wanted it that way.

"We're on record of saying that we want to be at a place where expectations are high," coach Michael Salmons said in the preseason, "because on the flip side of that, we feel, is a dark place. We embrace those expectations.

"That's a blessing. That's a gift. That means something is expected of you. That's a privilege."

Raceland responded with a program-record 13 wins and the second appearance in program history in the state title game.

Of the Rams' first 14 games, only two were decided by fewer than 20 points — their lone regular season loss at Highlands, 24-14, and a 17-14 escape from Hazard in the third round of the postseason.

Raceland came back with a 49-6 semifinal whipping of Louisville Holy Cross to get back to the state title game, where the Rams fell to Pikeville, 41-9.

2. Fraley to the top

Boyd County's girls basketball team dropped six games in a span of seven in January.

That didn't deter the Lions from a run to Rupp Arena, and it only delayed a personal milestone for their leader.

Boyd County's 51-35 victory over Ashland in the 16th Region Tournament championship game was its 515th in 26 seasons under coach Pete Fraley, boosting him to the top of the region's all-time wins list.

That broke a tie with the late West Carter legend John "Hop" Brown.

"Just to be mentioned in the same breath as Hop Brown, that's humbling," Fraley said after the game. "Hop's the best coach in the 16th Region girls ever, and it'll always be that way."

Though the Lions won their fourth region tournament championship in six years, they didn't enter the 2021-22 season considered a top contender. Boyd County only had one junior and no seniors and was still working out kinks as late as the final week of the regular season, which the Lions bookended with losses by significant margins to Russell and Rowan County.

But Boyd County didn't lose again until Lexington, surviving a scare from Menifee County in the region tournament semifinals and handling Ashland in the title game to get there.

1. Tomcats move on from Mays

Ashland needed to find the "next evolution" of its boys basketball team, according to its leader, coming off a fourth consecutive 16th Region Tournament title in March. But that was hardly reason for concern for Tomcats fans, as every other evolution under coach Jason Mays had been wildly successful.

As it turned out, this one would take place without him.

Ashland Blazer announced June 3 it had self-reported a violation of KHSAA Bylaw 16, which prevents "impermissible contact, which attempts to influence a student to transfer to a member school to participate in athletics."

Principal Jamie Campbell said then the school disciplined Mays but "100%" planned to retain him.

Later in June, audio surfaced online of a recording of a phone conversation between Mays and the parent of a Boyd County player. The call, said to have taken place in March, included the Tomcats coach telling the Lions parent he "would love to get my hands on" his son.

After investigating, the KHSAA informed Ashland in November it viewed the extent of its discipline of Mays to be insufficient. The school received "additional information" based on that KHSAA investigation, Campbell said, and looked into the matter further itself.

Ashland fired Mays as coach on Nov. 15 — two and a half weeks before tip-off of his fifth season. One day later, assistant Ryan Bonner was announced as interim coach.

It was a jarring end to one of the most successful coaching tenures in the history of the state's all-time winningest program. Under Mays's direction, Ashland elevated itself back to the mantle of undisputed top program in the region, a distinction for which the Tomcats were starved during a 16-season absence from the Sweet Sixteen — their longest-ever — when they hired Mays as coach in May 2018.

The KHSAA investigation remains "an ongoing matter," a KHSAA spokesman confirmed Sunday.

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zklemme@dailyindependent.com