Ashland (9-2) at Highlands (10-1)
Kickoff: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Highlands won
Series: Highlands leads 18-5-1
Radio: WBVB 97.1-FM
Covington Catholic (8-3)
at Johnson Central (9-2)
Kickoff: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Central won 41-28 (2010)
Series: Central leads 3-1
Radio: WSIP 98.1-FM
Top-ranked Highlands is going for its sixth straight state title, it hasn’t lost to a Kentucky team since 2010 and it hasn’t fallen to a northeastern Kentucky team since 1954 — that was to Ashland.
Ashland coach Leon Hart’s message to his players: You can’t control any of that.
“We’re not going to be accountable for what happened in the past,” Hart said. “But we are going to be accountable this Friday.”
Ashland (9-2) will try to throw a dagger into the Bluebirds’ grand plan on Friday night in Fort Thomas in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs. Meanwhile, Johnson Central will host Covington Catholic, yet another formidable opponent out of District 7.
It’s northern Kentucky football versus eastern Kentucky football.
That’s never an easy path for either side, especially for those located east.
“Those teams get a ton of talent,” said Johnson Central coach Jim Matney.
Highlands (10-1) mowed through most of its schedule, the only hiccup coming against Cincinnati Elder on Oct. 19.
Highlands quarterback Donovan McCoy has accounted for the bulk of the damage on offense. He’s rushed for more than 600 yards and thrown for 2,070. He also has 40 touchdowns either through the air (28) or on the ground.
Zach Harris leads the Bluebirds in rushing with 736 yards and 15 touchdowns on 89 carries. Ryan Donovan and Jaylen Hayes each has more than 400 rushing yards this season.
Ashland’s defense has performed well this season, relenting more than 20 points just twice. The Tomcats rely on strong, physical play and possess good quickness at linebacker.
“Defensively, you’ve got to try to contain (Highlands). You’re not going to shut them out,” Hart said. “You’ve got to do your best to eliminate big plays. They’re harder to defend because they do both (run and pass) well.”
The Tomcats faced a big-play offense in Covington Holmes in the first round of the playoffs, and executed well. They gave up only one play of greater than 20 yards.
Ashland held the speedy Bulldogs to no first-half points, while the Tomcats also thrived on offense behind solid running games by quarterback Aaron Elam (145 yards on 21 carries) and Malik Massey (155 on 22).
The return of senior center Drew Walters provided the Tomcats with a key boost on offensive line, Hart said.
“He’s the glue that holds that group together,” said Hart, who added that Luke Johnson did an exceptional job filling in for Walters in his six-game absence.
The O-line will have to be up for the task again at Highlands.
“If we beat Highlands, we’re going to beat Highlands running the football,” Hart said.
Covington Catholic (8-3) didn’t beat Highlands, but it was close. The Colonels fell 35-21 at Highlands in September.
Johnson Central (9-2) has had CovCath’s number in recent years though, winning each of the three postseason meetings from 2008-10.
Blake Bir, a senior, leads a CovCath passing attack that has kept receivers busy. Bir has 2,376 passing yards to accompany his 35 TDs and eight interceptions. He’s 141 of 246 on the season.
“He’s put up some huge numbers,” Matney said. “CovCath runs the spread offense, and they’re hard to stop.”
The Colonels are pretty good at stopping people, too. They’re allowing just 10.2 points per game, including five shutouts. They pounded Rowan County, 67-3, last week.
Junior Zach Gound has managed the offense efficiently at QB for Johnson Central. The full house backfield includes Daymion Belcher, Jordan Young and Josh Dillon, all viable threats.
The Golden Eagles exited the playoffs in the second round last season, falling victims to Highlands. But Matney believes his team is better than it was a year ago, and Gound is a major reason why.
“Even though our offense seems simple, it’s not quite as simple as people think,” Matney said. “We’ve obviously come leaps and bounds from last year. He’s making more correct reads now.”
Johnson Central hopes for another shot at Highlands in Paintsville. In 2010, the Golden Eagles fell agonizingly short, squandering a late chance in a seven-point defeat.
“I feel like we’re ready,” Matney said. “We certainly would love to play that next round in front of that home crowd. That’s a big incentive.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.