Following what seemed like a lengthy offseason for both squads, Ohio County and Owensboro Catholic are set to open the 2019 high school football campaign when the two sides clash Friday night at Steele Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Catholic went 8-4 last season in coach Jason Morris's first year at the helm, but the Aces' postseason hopes were cut short with a loss to Murray in the second round of the KHSAA Class 2-A playoffs.
Using that experience as motivation, Morris expects his squad to enter its season opener intent on proving itself early.
"We're excited about the opportunity to finally line up against another opponent in a game that counts against our record," Morris said. "Our seniors have done a good job all offseason leading our team and getting us ready. We're really excited about being able to see how all of our hard work pays off."
Meanwhile, Ohio County heads into Friday's matchup after finishing just 1-10 in 2018. The Eagles' lone win came in a 20-2 conquest of Butler County.
Ohio County head coach DaMarcus Ganaway, who guided the Eagles to a 7-4 record two seasons ago, is confident in his team's ability to move past last year's struggles -- and it all starts against the Aces.
"All offseason, all we talk about is the opener," said Ganaway, entering his third season in Hartford. "We really don't go into too much detail on the Owensboro Catholic name or the things they've done in the past. It's all about starting the season off on the right foot, minimizing our mistakes as much as we can and capitalizing on the things we feel like we can do.
"I think, overall, we accomplished what we wanted to do. We got stronger, we added depth, we added leadership, we've got experience, and we have the talent. Now, it's about putting it all together."
For the Eagles, it all starts with star running back Q'Daryius Jennings. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior played for Grayson County last season, rushing for 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns. As a freshman with Ohio County, Jennings totaled 856 yards and 10 TDs.
"In my opinion, he's the best running back in the state," Morris said of Jennings. "We know that not one person's gonna be able to get him down consistently. We're gonna have to rally to the football with numbers and gang tackle, make sure we're getting off blocks and getting as many numbers to the ball as we can.
"We always wanna game plan to stop the run and force teams to be one-dimensional and have to play from behind."
On the other side, the Aces will continue the pass-heavy offensive approach that's made them so successful in the past.
Senior quarterback Drew Hartz is back to lead Catholic after throwing for 2,606 yards and 32 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season.
"There's no doubt our game plan every week this year will be based around our quarterback," Morris said. "As long as we keep him upright, where he can deliver the ball on time to all of the speed we have at running back and wide receiver, we should be good offensively."
The Eagles know just how dangerous Hartz can be.
"We want to stop the big-play ability that they have and take away that deep ball from Drew Hartz," Ganaway said. "He's one of the best quarterbacks, if not the best quarterback, in the area this year. We know he's gonna have great command of that offense. He'll lead them up and down the field at times, so we wanna put a little bit of pressure on him and make plays in the secondary.
"We've got to tackle in the open field a lot better than what I've seen us do in scrimmages."
It's been a long offseason, Ganaway admitted, so he can't wait to get the season underway -- and he knows the Aces feel the same way.
"I'm getting to that point where I'm a little bit anxious," Ganaway said, laughing. "I think we all are, to get that first game going so that we can all see where we're at and build from there. That first game always has that exciting atmosphere. We're excited to get going."