The high school football playoffs are finally here. For seven area teams, the first step in their postseason journey begins tonight.
Due to postseason format changes, each team in the playoffs will now open with a rematch against a district opponent. For some, it's a chance at redemption. For others, it's an opportunity to prove that the last meeting wasn't a fluke. And for the rest, it's a chance to put an exclamation point on an already successful season.
Matchups among area teams include Muhlenberg County at Owensboro in Class 5-A; Todd County Central at Owensboro Catholic and Hancock County at McLean County in Class 2-A; and Daviess County at Henderson County and Apollo at McCracken County in Class 6-A.
MUHLENBERG COUNTY AT OWENSBORO
The Red Devils, ranked No. 7 in Class 5-A, have set themselves up nicely as hosts through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but OHS isn't taking anything for granted.
Even after claiming a 54-point victory over the Mustangs last month, Devils coach Jay Fallin and his players know what's at stake.
"We're just excited to be playing," Fallin said. "We're focused on our opponent this week and focused on making continuous improvements. We're hoping to play our best football in the playoffs.
"We've been working since July 10 for this. This is what you work hard all year for. Anytime you get to the first round of the playoffs, it's always exciting, and anything can happen."
Fallin knows the Mustangs are just as ready and have a point to prove.
"They're an option team," he said, "so we're gonna have to do a really good job of being sound on our assignments, making sure we're in position and taking away what they're trying to do."
TODD COUNTY CENTRAL AT OWENSBORO CATHOLIC
After last week's loss to Apollo, the Aces know exactly what Todd County Central's approach will be Friday.
"They're gonna try to exploit our perceived weakness of stopping the run," said Catholic coach Jason Morris, whose team is ranked No. 6 in Class 2-A. "They're gonna run it straight at us, try to control the clock and keep our offense off the field."
The last time Catholic faced the Rebels, the Aces departed Elkton with a 24-point victory. According to Morris, keeping senior star quarterback Drew Hartz off the turf will go a long way toward his team's success.
"They're not as aggressive as Apollo defensively, but they're gonna bring pressure and try to get to Drew," Morris said. "If we keep him upright and protect him, we feel that we'll be alright.
"At this time, it's survive and advance. We know you've got to treat every game the same and respect all of your opponents. Todd County played us very tough at their place, and we're expecting another tough game Friday."
DAVIESS COUNTY AT HENDERSON COUNTY
The last time these teams met, DC senior running back Shane Riley erupted for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime to end a long losing skid against the Colonels. The Panthers will attempt to recreate that result tonight.
In the regular-season meeting, Panthers sophomore quarterback Joe Humphreys also scored three times -- two through the air and one rushing -- to help keep Daviess County in contention.
Humphreys also accounted for three total touchdowns in last week's 28-27 win over Warren East, with freshman wide receiver Decker Renfrow hauling in five receptions for 115 yards and two scores.
Against the Panthers, Henderson County was led by quarterback Sam Elliott (10-for-30, 149 yards, two TDs) and running back Logan Green (136 yards, one TD). However, neither one scored in last week's 22-16 loss to Owensboro.
APOLLO AT McCRACKEN COUNTY
The Eagles have an opportunity at revenge after the Mustangs claimed an 81-51 win in the finale of the old Apollo Stadium in late September.
Since then, the Eagles have split their final four regular-season games -- ending the year with a statement victory over City-County rival Owensboro Catholic last week.
Junior running back Harold Hogg is one of the state's most dynamic rushers and has accumulated more than 2,000 yards this season. In Apollo's previous meeting against McCracken County, Hogg broke loose for a staggering 358 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries.
Not to be outdone, however, the Mustangs feature a big-time rusher of their own in junior Hunter Bradley. Against the Eagles, he recorded 403 yards and seven touchdowns on just 19 carries. However, McCracken County also sports a potent aerial attak, led by quarterback Elijah Wheat.
HANCOCK COUNTY AT McLEAN COUNTY
In a clash between ground-oriented offenses, the Cougars and Hornets will run the ball all evening.
McLean County posted a 21-point win over Hancock County just a little over two weeks ago, but Cougars coach Zach Wagner isn't banking on a similar outcome.
"Hancock County is tough," said Wagner, whose team has won three straight games. "They run the ball a lot like we do. They run the veer very, very well. They've got a lot of good running backs that have a chance to score. We're gonna have to move the ball and limit our mistakes."
The Hornets will look to move past last week's 16-14 home loss to Breckinridge County, in which the Fighting Tigers scored on a 60-yard pass late in the fourth quarter for the victory.