Football fans, we've arrived at our ultimate destination. Let's take a closer look at each of the battles in store for Lexington teams in the first round of the postseason.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (3-7) at Lafayette (8-2)
When these two met in the season opener, the Generals rolled to a 43-21 victory. Neither head coach expects it to go quite that way this time around.
"I think they're playing better defensively," Lafayette Coach Eric Shaw said of Dunbar. "I know they've taken the approach to cut the game in half, which is good. I think what they're doing now plays into their strengths."
The Bulldogs bring a deceptive four-game losing streak into the postseason: true, they've lost those games, but they've played some of the state's best teams — Bryan Station, Henry Clay, Scott County and Boyle County — close in successive weeks.
That's something Dunbar can be proud of, Coach Paul Rains said.
"While finishing 3-7, we're playing harder than we probably did back in the start of the season," Rains said. "That says a whole lot about the caliber of boys we got and the position our program's in. Our record doesn't necessarily determine how we play the game."
Dunbar's inexperience hindered it at the onset but after switching from a pass-happy offense to a run-oriented attack after the first three games — "We threw it to the other team more than we threw it to our team," Rains said — the Bulldogs developed an identity that could allow them to make some noise.
To advance, they'll have to upset what Rains called "probably the most talented team in the state of Kentucky" by controlling the ball and eliminating all turnovers.
"I don't know how many college prospects they got, but however many it is it's more than we got," Rains said with a laugh.
One of those prospects is quarterback Walker Wood, who recently committed to the University of Kentucky as an athlete. Wood saw the Generals grow during their district title win at Tates Creek a couple of weeks ago.
"We got down 28-15 at one point and I didn't see any panic in our eyes," Wood said. "That was a good thing."
Maintaining that level of focus, leading up to and during the game, is vital.
"We all got to do our part and take it week by week," Wood said. "This week it's Dunbar and we're not thinking about anything else except Dunbar on Friday night."
Bardstown (5-5) at Lexington Catholic (7-3)
A 28-0 loss at Cooper at the end of September was a fork-in-the-road moment for the Knights.
"We really had to look at ourselves and put up or shut up pretty much," senior running back Jaylen Jones said. "We had to either be the team we knew we had the potential to be or we could crumble. We rose to the potential and decided to be all-in, and we were all gonna shoot for the stars."
Those "stars" have manifested themselves in wins, four straight after that loss. The streak includes a sweep of Class 3A, District 4 and an upset of Boyle County that ensured that a regional finals, if played between the two, would happen in Lexington.
But first up are the Tigers, whom Jones called "extremely athletic." Junior quarterback Santrel Farmer has played in just six games for Bardstown but recently returned to the field. He's thrown for 780 yards and eight TDs this season.
In addition to Farmer, LexCath Coach Mark Perry said the Tigers' kicking game and explosive return guyswill "keep you awake at night."
Perry said a schedule front-loaded with bigger schools with few holes in their lineups gave LexCath a better sense of its flaws.
"They don't put too many bad players on the field so you really get your weaknesses exposed and work like crazy to correct them," Perry said. " ... We've made strides and now we're sitting here in week 11 and playing our best football of the year. Yeah, you put yourself out there and have potential to lose when you play those caliber teams, but it allows for great growth in a football team."
LexCath closed the regular season with a 43-14 drubbing of Class 5A Southwestern, a game that Jones said "didn't really mean much" because it didn't have any playoff implications.
"But as a team it meant a lot for us to come together and play our best football," Jones said. " ... I just want to look back (on this season) and not regret one single play."
Madison Central (6-4) at Henry Clay (6-4)
After a midseason slump, Henry Clay has won three straight and looks to hand the Indians their fifth loss from a Lexington opponent this season.
Henry Clay is doing anything but overlooking Madison Central, too. Coach Sam Simpson said the region is too tough to underestimate any opponent.
"There could be a couple of first-round upsets," Simpson said. " ... Any team that overlooks somebody is messing up."
Tyven McWhorter, a senior wide receiver and defensive back, said Henry Clay's defense has started to step up and the secondary is starting to make big plays. Case in point: last week he returned an interception 100 yards for a TD, only the 35th time a player has done that in Kentucky history.
He's emerged as the team's leading receiver and values being a guy the Blue Devils can rely on in clutch moments.
"I feel good that my team can depend on me to catch the ball, especially in situations where you need to throw the ball down the field," McWhorter said.
Joquise Buford, who led the state in rushing last season and has more than 1,000 yards in just seven games this season, will be called upon to match an Indians rushing attack that could see two runners — Johan Williams and Korrion Crier — own the night.
"When you have to sit out a little bit it's kind of hard to just jump back in and get right back to it," Buford said. " ... I'm still working a bit to get back to where I was."
Davonte Robinson, a UK commitment who leads the Blue Devils with 95 tackles this season, said they're starting to get more hits in the backfield — a positive as they prepare against a stout stable of running backs.
"We're hoping to step up and make the plays," Robinson said.
Prestonsburg (5-5) at Lexington Christian (6-4)
Both teams feature a 1,000--yard-plus bruiser in the backfield — senior Austin Peay commitment Dalton Frasure for Prestonsburg and sophomore Dillon Wheatley for the Eagles.
Perhaps the biggest differences? LCA has allowed twice the yardage Prestonsburg has on the ground while doubling the total passing yardage the Blackcats have produced.
Running backs capable of matching or exceeding Wheatley's production — Danville's Stephen Ray, Walton-Verona's Halsey Page and Powell County's Justin Rogers — have been LCA's undoing all season, and Frasure might be the biggest threat of all.
Eagles Coach Ethan Atchley said his "team's got a lot of fight in them" and will be ready when LCA hosts its second straight first-round playoff game.
Dropping four of their final six was disappointing after opening with four wins, Atchley said, but the Eagles have mined positives out of those negatives.
"We've found out what we're good at and maybe what we overlooked in those first four games," Atchley said.
The difficulty lies in keeping kids from dwelling too long on past performances.
"It's a challenge each and every week to get kids at the high school age to understand, 'Forget about last week but remember a little bit to use as some fire,'" Atchley said.
Bryan Station (6-4) at Tates Creek (5-5)
Since getting steamrolled 54-21 by the Defenders at home in September, the Commodores have allowed just 78 points in the four games since. They're hosting a playoff game for just the second time since 2004.
The Commodores lost three fumbles and gave up two interceptions in the first outing against Bryan Station.
"There were games we were in and there were a couple of games where it didn't seem like we got off the bus," Tates Creek Coach Antoine Sims said. "As the season went on I think we started to come together in certain areas. But we still have not played a perfect football game yet."
The good thing is Friday is the start of a new season, Sims said. Though one imagines he'd like for some of the late momentum to carry into the postseason. Tates Creek went 3-1 in its last four, the loss a one-point heartbreaker to Lafayette for the district title.
Bryan Station Coach Frank Parks certainly isn't expecting the Commodores to lay down.
"I think they have improved drastically since that last time we played them," Parks said. "They're a different team."
An injury to Devon Key, a Western Kentucky commitment who does a little bit of everything for the Defenders, factored into Station dropping its final two games of the season and falling to third place in its district behind Scott County and Henry Clay.
Parks said Key is progressing more quickly than the team originally thought he would. He said the senior could be a game-time decision at Tates Creek.
Station quarterback Andre Davis, who has thrown for 25 TDs and rushed for eight more, is dealing with a nagging shoulder injury but will play. Franks said he might come out for a snap or two.
"This time of year you just gotta suck it up if it's not major and go out and try to produce," Parks said. "If not, the season's over with."