Mason County starts their playoff football run with....the defending state champs.

Despite a 7-3 record and three losses by a combined 11 points, the Royals will hit the road for a two and a half hour hike to take on Johnson Central in Paintsville. The Golden Eagles, winners of last year's Class 4A title, enter at 8-2 and a two-game losing streak.

The reason for the road game for the Royals was a tough loss to Scott in overtime and a one-point loss to Bourbon County in district play. The Golden Eagles missed out on a district title when they lost to Ashland two weeks ago. Therefore Johnson Central is the two-seed out of the Class 4A, 8th District while the Royals are the three-seed in the Class 4A, 7th District, pairing one another.

The matchup figures to be one of the better opening round games in Class 4A in the state, Johnson Central finished No. 4 in the final AP prep poll in Class 4A while the Royals were ranked No. 11.

"They're 7-3, anytime a team is 7-3 they're doing something right," Golden Eagles coach Jim Matney said. "They've got good athletes so we need to be prepared to win or stay at the house."

It's no secret what Johnson Central does well and has been doing for years...run the football. The Golden Eagles average 359 yards a game on the ground while they can still keep teams honest as they average nearly 20 yards per completion, throwing for right under 900 yards on the season.

"Matney does a good job putting his kids in position to succeed," Royals coach Jonathan Thomas said. "The offense knows what they have to do, they make good in-game adjustments, hit you hard at the point of attack and they just know the system and how to make it work."

Five different Johnson Central players average at least five carries per game spearheaded by Blake Gamble, the second leading rusher in Class 4A with 1,380 rushing yards on the season.

"We have a really strong line and normally have some good backs," Matney said.

The Royals stout rush defense will definitely get put to the test. They come in allowing just 123.9 yards per game on the ground, good for one of the top rush defenses in Class 4A.

Mason County doesn't sell it self short in their ground attack either and it's been evident in their final six games of the regular season, totaling 1,545 yards on the ground for an average of 257.5 yards per contest. Malkolm Devine has been the beneficiary of that, as he cleared the 1,000-yard marker in the Royals 36-6 win over Lewis County last week.

It's no secret the success the Golden Eagles carry, being in the last two state title games and going 74-13 over the last seven seasons, but the Royals are a confident bunch headed into Friday night's contest.

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"We've been a bunch that will always fight. We'll fight ya. We've been trying to play that into our preparation and I feel like we've been locked in and we're ready to roll," Thomas said. "We control what happens from here and need to go out and try and play our game."

Also helping the cause is the Royals entering the game as healthy as they've been in weeks, getting two members of the offensive line back in Will Caudill and Chase Lykins back, as well as defensive back Austin Blake, who returned last week against Lewis County.

As for the long bus ride, the Royals will be taking a charter bus down for it, similar to what they did when they had to play North Laurel last season.

It's been 11 years since the two have met, the Golden Eagles coming away with a 40-0 victory in October of 2006.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

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