Johnson Central’s Devin Johnson runs the ball.

Johnson Central prides itself on its offense’s ability to grind out long drives.

The Golden Eagles aren’t the ones who will have to do that on the asphalt in preparation for tonight’s state semifinals. Johnson Central, by virtue of its No. 2 finish in Class 4A in the initial season of the KHSAA’s ratings percentage index, plays host at 6 p.m. to Madisonville-North Hopkins — located 310 miles from Eagle Field.

That’s only the latest in a brutal stretch for the Maroons, who have, in the last four weeks, concluded their regular season against western Kentucky power Mayfield, avenged an earlier last-second loss to Logan County, knocked off district top seed Hopkinsville and eliminated two-time defending state champion Franklin-Simpson.

“To get to this point, we’ve gone through one of the hardest stretches, I think, of probably anybody in the state,” Madisonville-North Hopkins coach Jay Burgett said. “Now, we have to travel to Johnson Central, who has been in the state championship the last four years as well. So the road that we have traveled, if we’re able to secure this victory, nobody’s gonna be able to question how gritty and tough and well-coached our football team is.”

Consider Jim Matney already impressed.

“They’re just an incredibly talented football team,” Johnson Central’s coach said of the Maroons, who boast Mr. Football candidate Jeriah Hightower — a 2,817-yard rusher. He’s picked up 33 touchdowns.

Madisonville-North Hopkins quarterback Hayden Reynolds has thrown for 1,948 yards and 26 scores. Deljuan Johnson has been on the receiving end of 14 touchdowns and 819 yards’ worth of aerials, and Marquise Parker has chipped in 607 yards and nine scores through the air.

They’ve lifted the Maroons (11-2) to their first state semifinal berth since 1971.

“Our guys are gonna handle it as another week of practice. They’re very excited to still be playing football,” Burgett said. “I won’t say that I’m not shocked, with the KHSAA’s new RPI format, that we’re traveling 310 miles across the state of Kentucky, near West Virginia.”

That isn’t the longest trip in Class 4A playoff history, but it may be the longest road trip. Ashland boarded a plane to Paducah Tilghman — what would’ve been a 373-mile drive between opposite corners of the commonwealth — for the 1975 state semifinals, also known then as the state at-large championship. No one has made a farther trip in the 4A postseason than the Maroons will this week since at least 1998, which is as far back as comprehensive online KHSAA records go.

Once Madisonville-North Hopkins reaches Johnson Central (13-0), it will encounter a rushing attack that features five backs who have rushed for 377 yards or more, as well as Golden Eagles quarterback Ryley Preece and a pair of pass-catching threats in wideout Seth Dalton (616 yards, 10 touchdowns) and tight end Zack Russell (241 yards, two scores).

All that behind a road-grading offensive line that, according to Burgett, “wants to drive you down and impose their size on you.”

He specifically mentioned Preece (1,133 passing yards, 17 passing TDs, 604 rushing yards, 13 scores) and back Devin Johnson (1,339 rushing yards, 18 TDs) as the beneficiaries.

Burgett hopes Madisonville-North Hopkins can show the Golden Eagles something they haven’t encountered as they’ve romped to the state semifinals for the fifth straight season.

“I don’t think they’ve seen a team that possesses size similar to them and speed,” Burgett said. “Now, they’ve seen teams with good size, they’ve seen teams with good speed, but I feel like we have a combination of both, and I hope it allows us to be successful on Friday night.

“You can’t do anything but credit Johnson Central and their program for the run that they’ve had, and they’re a very, very, very formidable opponent for us. We’re gonna have to travel into eastern Kentucky, into the mountains, and play a team that has dominated 4A football for a long time. It’s a big task, but it’s one that we’re up for, and our players are very excited for the challenge ahead.”

Whereas the Maroons are in the state’s final four for the first time in 48 years, Johnson Central has no returning players who haven’t played on Black Friday — and won — every year they’ve worn black and gold.

“I think experience is key in most sports, and especially it is in football,” Matney said. “I think having been there before is an advantage. Of course, it will all come down to whoever performs, plays smart, takes care of the football and doesn’t get any wasteful penalties. You’d like to think that experience would be on our side.”

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