KHSAA crossbracketing prior to the season promised new playoff perspectives, and that's exactly what the northeastern Kentucky teams in Class 3A get in the first round of the postseason on Friday.
Of the six area Class 3A playoff teams, five have a new opponent for the first time this week.
Lawrence County and Bath County both tote ball-control approaches to the big city on Friday. The Bulldogs make their maiden voyage to Louisville to face Waggener, while the Wildcats travel to Lexington Catholic.
Fleming County, a district champion outright for the first time since 2001, hosts Garrard County, West Carter goes to Boyle County, and Morgan County is at Casey County.
Only Russell has a relatively familiar opponent. The Red Devils host Western Hills to open the playoffs for the third time in seven years.
Garrard County (3-7) at Fleming County (8-2)
District championships have been hard to come by this millenium for the Panthers. So Fleming County, which rose to the top of Class 3A, District 5, is glorying in its accomplishment.
"Our kids believe in themselves, they believe that we can win any ball game that we're in, and that's a good place to be," Panthers coach Bill Spencer said. "A lot of times, that's half the battle, is getting your kids to believe in themselves, but this group that we have right now, they got a lot of confidence in themselves and think they can play with anybody."
The Golden Lions were squarely separated from frontrunning Boyle County and Lexington Catholic in the District 4 standings. But of Garrard County's five losses to everyone else, three were by one possession.
Spencer called the Golden Lions' offensive line their strength. Josh Warren has run behind them for 1,366 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Fleming County's front lines, largely unproven coming into this season, are prepared for that challenge, Spencer said.
"Our front four D-line and our linebackers this year have grown," Spencer said. "We're not a very big group, but I think our kids play hard and move well and get to the ball pretty well."
The Panthers have been shorthanded since the season opener, when top playmaker Zac Alexander tore his ACL.
Already shorthanded since the season opener, when top receiver Zac Alexander tore his ACL, Fleming County saw receiver Jaden Waller sprain an ankle two weeks ago against Pendleton County. And quarterback Josh Crump left the regular season finale against Paintsville after taking a hard hit. Spencer said they both could've played on against the Tigers, but the Panthers chose to rest and heal them "for the games that have a little bit more importance to them."
A healthy Crump and Waller will be important going forward: they've hooked up for 632 of Crump's 1,872 passing yards. Crump has thrown 22 touchdowns against five picks and run for nine TDs.
Brad Glascock (535 receiving yards, 7 TDs) and Nick Clark (451 rushing yards, six scores) add depth to Fleming County's playmaking corps.
Western Hills (7-3) at Russell (5-5)
The Red Devils are in unfamiliar territory, entering the postseason .500 for the first time since 2010.
Russell coach T.J. Maynard is eager to see how his team responds to what he called the accompanying "negativity."
"We're gonna have our hands full," he said of the Wolverines, "but the whole thing goes back to making sure that our guys are in the right frame of mind and they come to work and don't just pack it in. That's where leadership's gotta come in, and that's where we gotta come together as brothers."
Russell earned the No. 2 seed and a home game Friday and avoided Lexington Catholic in the first round by edging Bath County, 13-12, in a battle for second place in District 5 two weeks ago. Then came a 26-14 loss to Raceland, in which the Red Devils used big plays to hang close but couldn't generate enough offense to win.
The Wolverines have had little trouble of the sort. Junior running back Wandale Robinson, who has a scholarship offer from Kentucky among others, surpassed 2,000 rushing yards this season and ran for his 30th touchdown against Harrison County on Friday. He's also caught five scoring passes and has three TDs on returns and is Class 3A's leading rusher.
"Obviously, it starts with Robinson," Maynard said. "He's a stud ... he's gonna have our full attention, but he's not the only guy on their team. Their fullback (Bryce Edmondson) and quarterback (J'len Youngblood) are really good."
Landen Duvall has led Russell's offense with 947 rushing yards and 11 scores, including a 73-yard scoring jaunt against the Rams that helped earn him Rail Cities Bowl MVP honors for the Red Devils. Grant Bates has run for 595 yards and seven scores, and Reed Galloway has caught 466 yards' worth of passes. Quarterback Austin Church has thrown for 818 yards, six scores and eight interceptions.
Bath County (7-3) at Lexington Catholic (5-5)
Third-year coach Johnny Poynter says "we're just trying to learn how to win," and it's worked -- the Wildcats already own their most victories since 2012.
"Over the last five or six weeks, we've gotten better as a team," Poynter said. "We've got more comfortable doing what we're doing now. ... We've been able to move the ball basically on everybody we've played."
Bath County used its double-wing offense to control the clock and stay competitive against Russell in a 13-12 loss two weeks ago. The Wildcats will try to do more of the same against the Knights.
"I think it's a key," Poynter said of holding the ball. "(Lexington Catholic is) gonna score points. I mean, they scored 71 against Western Hills and got big numbers against a lot of other people.
"We've got to keep the ball and keep it out of their hands. We can't get in no horse race with them."
Bath County will adminster a large dose of Landan Swartz, who has run for 1,922 yards and 23 touchdowns and is second in Class 3A in rushing.
Lane Rogers has rushed for 357 yards and eight scores, and Cameron Corbin, out the last three weeks with injury, is expected to return, Poynter said. He's got 469 yards and four TDs on the ground.
The Knights' .500 record belies their excellence over a generation, as well as a stout schedule -- their five losses have come to teams whose combined record is 46-4.
Quarterback Beau Allen has thrown for 2,257 yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Nathan Schnurr owns 816 receiving yards, and Luke Powell snagged 473 yards in receptions. Both have seven TDs. Dameon Jones has rushed for 1,258 yards and 10 scores.
The Wildcats seek their first playoff win since 2008.
West Carter (5-5) at Boyle County (9-1)
If there was any question if the Comets have taken their streak of playoff appearances -- historically not always a guarantee in Olive Hill -- for granted, West Carter answered it to coach Kevin Brown's satisfaction two weeks ago.
The Comets earned their fourth straight playoff bid with a win-or-go-home 49-16 defeat of Lewis County on Oct. 20.
"They expect to win. They expect to go to the playoffs, and it's important to them," Brown said. "When we were 2-5, they very easily could've shut down, but they didn't, and we ended up winning our last three there, and we've gotten better each week, and we look to get better next week, no matter what the outcome is."
Now comes a trip to visit the Class 3A third-ranked Rebels, whose only close game of the season was a 10-7 loss to crosstown archrival Danville.
"Boyle County and Lexington Catholic, that's the teams that we strive to eventually be like," Brown said. "We want to be very successful year in and year out, and we all know Boyle County's won multiple state championships.
"But also, if you go even in our district, Russell has won state championships. We're accustomed to playing good football teams, and ... I want my guys to experience that and see exactly what it takes to get to that level."
Peyton Brown leads the Comets offensively, with 1,051 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Quarterback Christian Rivers has thrown for 1,068 yards, 13 TDs and three picks, as well as rushing for 697 yards and seven scores.
Kevin Brown has delighted in the emergence of Rivers and the Comets' passing game. Malic Cline has 444 receiving yards and six scores, and Leetavious Cline has caught passes for 276 yards and five TDs.
For Boyle County, Tanner Crawford has run for 1,267 yards and 18 touchdowns, and Landen Bartleson owns 722 yards and 12 scores. Reed Lanter has passed for 1,838 yards, 18 scores and three interceptions.
Lawrence County (5-5) at Waggener (4-6)
The Bulldogs drew a short straw as part of a three-way tie for second place in District 6. Floyd Central claimed the second seed and with it a home playoff game in a KHSAA strength of victory tiebreaker, sending Lawrence County to Louisville.
"We're excited about the opportunity. It's something different," Bulldogs coach Alan Short said. "But with that, obviously, we're gonna play arguably the most athletic team we've played this season."
The Wildcats have "lots and lots and lots of speed," Short said. "We're just gonna have to keep them in front of us."
Lawrence County counters with its triple-option attack that has produced one of Class 3A's leading rushers in quarterback Noah West (1,354 yards, 22 touchdowns through the Bulldogs' first eight games).
Ashton Blankenship ran for 487 yards and five touchdowns, and Dalton Ferguson put up 610 yards and seven TDs through the same time frame.
"It's obviously two conflicting styles," Short said. "I don't know how much that (Waggener has) seen our style of play, so it's gonna be a little bit different for them as well. Hopefully we can frustrate them some and just continue to get first downs and put together long drives and finish in the end zone."
Jarrett Fairchild is back in the Bulldogs' backfield rotation after missing time with a separated elbow. His return comes as Ferguson is out with MCL surgery.
Quarterback Jarius Brents had thrown for 808 yards, 10 scores and nine interceptions entering Waggener's regular season finale, as well as rushing for 369 yards and five TDs. Short said he's getting "legitimate Division I offers" and has been a little banged up, but he expects to see Brents on the field.
Brandon Jones has run for 827 yards and five scores, and Marlon Kimble has caught passes totaling 552 yards and nine TDs.
Morgan County (4-6) at Casey County (9-1)
First, an infrastructural oddity: the Cougars will get on a bus in West Liberty on Friday afternoon and travel roughly two and a half hours southwest to, of all places, Liberty.
According to kyatlas.com, the place now known as West Liberty was renamed that in 1823 with the expectation that the soon-to-be-built county seat of Pike County would be christened Liberty. That city, though, evolved into what is now Pikeville.
Casey County's seat was named Liberty in 1806 by a group of Revolutionary War veterans to reflect the area's patriotic sentiment, according to the book "Kentucky Place Names."
The denizens of the similarly (if geographically inaccurately) named cities meet for the first time Friday on the gridiron.
Michael Prater has run for 693 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Cougars, and has 793 receiving yards and eight scores. Kaden Ballenger has rushed for 678 yards and 10 TDs.
Garrett Adkins has passed for 1,554 yards, 19 touchdowns and three picks. Zach Gilliam possesses 382 receiving yards and seven TDs.
Preston Tucker leads the Rebels with 1,231 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground and six scoring receptions. Dalton Summers racked up 364 rushing yards and nine TDs. Austin Campbell has thrown for 2,226 yards, 21 TDs and nine interceptions. Britt Pendleton has 1,054 receiving yards and nine TD catches.
An attempt to reach Cougars coach Mark Easterling was unsuccessful before press time.
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