KHSAA realignment created three vacancies on Ashland’s 2019 football schedule.

The Tomcats’ solution was to add three teams to their slate who competed in their respective state’s playoff semifinals last season. One of them is Wheelersburg, which Ashland visits on Friday night.

Raceland wants what Pikeville has — Class A state hardware. The Rams, coming off their fourth berth in the state semis in six seasons, scheduled an encounter with the Panthers with that aim.

Lawrence County is hosting Russell this week in a matchup of old-school Class 3A powers, while Greenup County is seeking out the Buckeye State’s trademark physicality.

It adds up to a Friday full of fresh, mouth-watering matchups, in a season that may include more of them locally than before in recent years.

Are northeastern Kentucky teams intentionally stepping up the quality of their scheduling?

“I hope so,” Raceland coach Michael Salmons said. “I hope in that process the other teams on people’s schedules improve the programs, because I think any time you can elevate your programs and make football better at your school, it makes the area better, and other people are forced to either get better or get left behind.”

Tough non-district opposition is nothing new for the Tomcats, but Wheelersburg is. The two tradition-laden teams from opposite sides of the Ohio River will play for the first time on Friday.

“When we talked to our kids about moving Wheelersburg onto the schedule, they were excited back in the winter,” Ashland coach Tony Love said. “It’s a local team. It should be great for the fans; it should be great for both programs that are really well-recognized. ... Our athletic directors really worked hard to put things together and figured out how we could match up two communities that are passionate about football.”

Before this season, the Tomcats were moved from a district of six teams to one with four schools, and next-door rival Russell moved into the same district as Ashland, leaving three open schedule spots.

Enter first-time foes Wheelersburg and Spring Valley, which Ashland had sought to schedule for “quite a while,” said Love, but couldn’t find compatible dates. Knox Central joined the Tomcats’ slate for the first time since 1972.

The Timberwolves have been to three straight state finals in West Virginia’s biggest classification, the Pirates are coming off their third trip to Ohio’s Division V state semifinals in four seasons and won a state title two years ago, and the Panthers went to the Class 4A state round of four last year. That trio and Raceland give Ashland four opponents who advanced to their state’s semifinals or farther last season.

That’s a chunk of what Love has called the most rigorous schedule Ashland has had in his 26 years on staff.

“You know that these high-level programs will expose any weakness you have, and that’s what you really want to find out as you go into the playoffs before you get there is, where are you vulnerable? What are you not doing right?” Love said, adding with a chuckle, “Playing the caliber of teams that we’re playing now, you better figure it out real quick.”

Lawrence County coach Alan Short joked that he hoped he hadn’t scheduled himself out of a job in assembling the Bulldogs’ 2019 and ’20 slate. A visit to Louisa on Friday from Russell is part of a premium docket. Both teams used ground-gobbling attacks for successful seasons last year.

The Red Devils are one of five teams Lawrence County will play who made it to the third round of the playoffs or further last season. Russell and Pikeville, last year’s Class A state runner-up, are new to the Bulldogs’ schedule, joining Raceland, Paintsville and district opponent Belfry.

“It’s a steep mountain to climb,” Short said, “and we felt like the next step in our program, we’ve gotta start playing some of these people.”

Raceland and Pikeville need no introduction entering Friday’s date at W.C. Hambley Athletic Complex. They’ve butted heads in the playoffs in five of the last eight years. The Rams knocked off the Panthers two years ago on a field goal as time expired to earn their first state title game trip, and Pikeville returned the favor last fall.

The Rams and Panthers began looking for a mutually available early-season date after their 2017 playoff meeting, Salmons said.

“We’re very familiar with each other, and if you’re gonna get better, you gotta play the best,” Salmons said, “and we know that’s gonna be one of the premier programs in Class A every year.”

Four-time state champion Pikeville has been ranked No. 1 in Class A since the preseason.

“It’s not every week you get a chance to play the No. 1 team in the state. That’s exciting, to get that opportunity,” Salmons said. “I just think it’s a great game all around for us. Hopefully we can play these guys again, who knows when or where.”

That would require Raceland making it to at least the third round of the playoffs under the KHSAA’s new system that pits district opponents against each other in the first two rounds of the postseason.

“We’ve gotta do our best job to be prepared for that moment,” Salmons said, “and the only way to do that is put your team in adverse situations and see how they respond. And from that response, you’re gonna see how teams can grow.”

Greenup County, in search of a positive jolt to its district performance, is meeting the first of three consecutive Ohio opponents when Minford (6-4 last season) comes calling on Friday. Wheelersburg visits Lloyd next week in a renewal of a once-annual series dormant except for one meeting since 1998.

“We feel like those teams bring a lot of toughness and play a very physical brand of football,” Musketeers coach Scott Grizzle said of the Buckeye State trio in the preseason. “Wheelersburg is obviously an old-school rival game. We wanted to bring that back to the community, because both communities really like that game. It’s still a rival in every other sport, so why not football?”

Perhaps the biggest undertaking of any northeastern Kentucky team this season was Paintsville facing perennial state power Beechwood on Aug. 30. The blue-clad Tigers knocked off the red-and-white-wearing Tigers, 19-14.

“We’re way over our head with our schedule and what we’re doing,” Paintsville coach Joe Chirico said in the preseason, referencing non-district meetings with Lawrence County, Pikeville, Hazard and Lexington Christian. “I don’t know what happens to us and how we’re gonna fare, but we had to make the schedule as tough as we could get it. If you have a chance in the playoffs, you’ve gotta have your RPI up or you’re traveling everywhere you go.”

A new ratings power index rewarding wins against strong opponents will dictate matchups and locations in the third and fourth round of the postseason. Most teams already had their schedules nearly set before that change was announced in January, and most coaches said they would try to play strong competition regardless of the new format.

“I think mostly teams schedule who they can get to play against them, for the most part,” West Carter coach Daniel Barker said. “Teams are trying to find challenging games to schedule, to see where their programs are and where they can improve.”

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