All of the preseason chatter is now over.
The COVID-19 protocols are all in place.
After an almost month-long delay, high school football across the state of Kentucky kicks off across the Bluegrass tonight.
And in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, arguably one of the biggest and brightest matchups of them all will take place between two powerhouse football programs.
The Pulaski County Maroons will embark later today on a 3 ½ hour bus ride up to Pike County, to take on the defending Class 3 A state champion Belfry Pirates.
For head coach Johnny Hines, it's simply a case of 'Been there, done that'.
This game was originally on PC's schedule, and it was to be the Maroons season opener back on August 23rd as part of the annual Don Franklin Bowl at PC Field.
But after COVID-19 wiped out the first three weeks of the season for every team in the state of Kentucky, and after Henry Clay cancelled their week four game with the Maroons, Johnny Hines and company - just two weeks ago - were looking for an opponent to play on September 11th in the season opener.
Enter Belfry, and the rest is history.
This game - after it was initially cancelled on August 23rd - will take place after all, and Hines knows all too well about just how stern of a task this is going to be for a young club with a lot of question marks at multiple positions.
Last season on their way to an 11-3 record and a 30-20 win over Bell County in the Class 3 A State Championship Football Game, Belfry had a three-headed monster in the backfield, with a trio of outstanding running backs in Ben Bentley, Peyton Hensley, and Isaac Dixon -- with all three rushing for over 1,000 yards last season.
Two of those three graduated in 2019, but Dixon returns this year for his senior season, and is looking to improve upon last season's numbers -- a season that saw him rush for 1,191 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior.
Dixon is just another of many problems PC is going to have to deal with, in a very tough opening game on the road in the mountains of far eastern Kentucky tonight.
"The thing that makes this a tougher game for us is the travel aspect," pointed out coach Hines.
"If this was a home game, I'd feel a little better about it, but to get on that bus ride for a long time, and go up in the mountains and have to play one of the top teams out there makes it a whole lot tougher," added the Maroons head coach. "It may be one of the toughest openers we've ever had since I've been here at PC."
Of course for the Maroons -- no matter the opponent or the difficult task at hand -- tonight's game will give a Pulaski County football team the opportunity to go out and try to get the bad taste out of its mouth with the way the 2019 season ended.
Injuries to quarterback Drew Polston, along with receivers Jake Sloan and Grant Oaks, sunk PC's hopes a year ago, as a once stellar 7-1 record last season ended with a 7-4 mark and a three-game losing skid without those three to finish off the campaign.
Polston -- a junior quarterback is back this year and is 100 percent healthy, and was on his way to a great season from a year ago, before he suffered a torn labrum injury against Southwestern in week nine.
In nine starts last year as a sophomore before the injury, Polston completed 71 percent of his passes, going 177-248 through the air for 1,944 yards and 18 touchdowns.
And, senior running back/linebacker Tristan Cox is back this season, and the Purdue commit is one of the top players in the state of Kentucky.
With those two back, along with a ton of young and talented -- albeit untested players at the varsity level -- the Maroons come into 2020 as a team with very high aspirations.
Then again, what else is new?
"Those two guys (Drew) Polston and (Tristan) Cox -- I'm glad they're on our team," stated Hines with a grin across his face.
"Belfry is a very good football team, and they're extremely hard to beat at home," he added. "However, with those two guys playing on both sides of the football for us, it makes this game hard on them as well. We've got a lot of younger guys too that are very good football players. They just have to learn under fire, make sure they're in the right spots, and learn how to make big plays to help us win big football games, and this is a big game for us."
No matter the outcome of tonight's contest, Hines says that win or lose, going up against a powerhouse like Belfry -- who is the defending Class 3 A state champion -- will give him and his coaching staff a good barometer of just where his team is at after one game into the season.
"Coach (Bill) Sharp made the comment the other day that we're going to find out, 'Where the holes in the boat are' after this game," Hines remarked.
"That's a good way to look at it I guess," Hines laughed. "Again, as I've stated earlier, we're still in the evaluation process with a lot of our kids. We didn't have spring practice, we didn't have summer practice, and we're just really getting started, and we're already having to play games. So, we've just got a lot of unanswered questions heading into this game."
Of course for a while earlier this summer, there was conjecture that the 2020 high school football season may not even happen, due to everything going on with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hines for one -- says win or lose tonight -- he's just glad his kids get an opportunity to take the field this evening, and go out and play some football.
"It's been a long, tough summer for our kids," stated the PC head coach.
"They've been out of school since March, and they had football taken away from them for awhile, and they've been dying to get back to school," Hines added. "They just want to get back to school and play football. They're very fired up about it, we as a coaching staff are fired up about it, and we're just hoping to have some fun on Friday night."
Kickoff for tonight's Pulaski County at Belfry football game is set to begin at 7:30 p.m.