Still at the top of his game

Published 12:50 pm Friday, March 8, 2019

LEXINGTON — Much like basketball teams and coaches from around the state who dream of making it to Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen, officials across Kentucky share a similar goal.

Mike Ashurst knows the feeling now better than most in a career that began in college in the 1970s and moved on to officiating junior varsity games at Cawood High School with his brother, Johnny, in the 1980s. Ashurst made it back to the top once again this week as he worked the Campbell County-John Hardin game Wednesday in the first round of the boys state tournament. He estimated it was his sixth trip to the state tournament since 1995, along with two appearances in the girls state tournament.

Ashurst, a 1970 graduate of Cawood High School, began working as an official in intramural games at Cumberland College.

“I started officiating in college to make a little extra money,” Ashurst said. “The guy who gave me an ambition to start was Harold ‘Bucket’ Lequire. He made a ‘and one call’ and his glasses flew halfway down the court. I said ‘My God, I want to do that.’ He was a great official and kind of inspired me.”

After several years working 13th Region games and making little progress, Ashurst said he began to get more serious about officiating by attending camps.

“I wasn’t moving as quickly as I wanted to, so I decided to go to a camp,” Ashurst said. “I wanted to learn everything about it. You have to get educated. I picked up some Division I leagues, beginning with women.”

His career took off from there, moving into college officiating on the Division I level while working his way to the top of the 13th Region. The top two officials in the region are asked to officiate in the state tournaments, one for boys and one for girls. Ashurst remembers his first state tournament was 1995 and the first game was Paintsville, led by J.R. VanHoose, against Montgomery County.

“It went into overtime and it was a two-person crew. Roger Cross and myself worked it, and I was torn all to pieces,” Ashurst said. “I was already calling college basketball at the time, but this is a big show and it’s very humbling to be here.”

Ashurst said he’s not as “tense” now as he was for his first state tournament, but noted “that you still get jittery. If you don’t, you probably don’t need to out there. It’s the biggest, I think, high school basketball tournament in the nation. You have to get a little uptight.”

During most of his years as an official and before, Ashurst worked as an educator, first as a math teacher at Wallins Elementary School and then Cawood A. High School before working his way into the job as principal at Cawood. He eventually moved on to Jessamine County and then Laurel County before retiring.

Ashurst credits much of his success to the “patience and support” of his wife, Becky, and four children.

“I thank God for my health and my family that allows me to do it,” he said. “I’m probably one of the most blessed people on Earth.”

Getting the call to work the state tournament is still a thrill for Ashurst, almost a quarter century after he first worked there.

“It’s very humbling,” he said. “It’s like players and coaches who dream of making it to the state tournament. It’s something every official should have an ambition to do.”