MONROE — By many standards, the Monroe football team is coming off a very successful season.
After all, the Bearcats ended a quarter-century drought by earning the program’s first trip to the state playoffs since 1991.
But after losing two of its final three games last fall, Monroe enters the 2017 campaign hungry to achieve more.
“People say we had a good year, but we didn’t accomplish (what) we wanted to accomplish,” third-year coach Michael Bumpus said Wednesday after his team’s season-opening practice. “We finished second in the league — we wanted that (league title). And we thought we had a team last year to at least go deeper than we did in the (playoffs).
“Historically, we accomplished a lot, just because there’s people in this town who haven’t seen a (Monroe football) team do as well. But other than that, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Monroe steamrolled to an 8-0 start last season, winning seven of those games by 40 points or more. But the Bearcats suffered a 42-3 running-clock defeat to Lake Stevens in the de facto Wesco 4A title game, and then two weeks later lost a back-and-forth thriller to Sumner in the first round of the state playoffs.
“I feel like if you don’t win the (state) championship, it’s unfinished business,” Bearcats senior Isaiah Cole said. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
A major challenge for Monroe this year will be to replace dual-threat quarterback Zach Zimmerman and star running back JJ Jerome, the area’s second-leading rusher last season. The since-graduated duo combined for 2,643 yards rushing last fall, accounting for 91 percent of the Bearcats’ ground attack.
Yet while their contributions will be tough to match, Bumpus is excited about about the players slated to fill their roles.
Bumpus raved about the development of senior Isaiah Lewis, a former receiver who has earned the starting running-back spot.
Heading into team camp this past summer at Eastern Washington University, it was a two-man battle to replace Jerome. But Lewis wasted little time winning the job.
“By the end of the first day, Lewis was our clear-cut starter,” Bumpus said. “He was one of our hardest workers in the weight room. He trimmed down about five pounds, added some muscle and got some speed. He’s now one of the fastest guys on our team, whereas in previous seasons, he wasn’t even in the conversation.
“He’s a patient runner,” Bumpus added. “He has good vision. And once he sees the hole, the rest is history.”
Meanwhile, after three years of waiting his turn, senior quarterback Jaedyn Prewitt is set to take over under center. Though not the dual-threat athlete that Zimmerman was, Bumpus likes what Prewitt has shown this offseason.
“Zimmerman was an athlete with an arm, whereas Prewitt is a quarterback,” Bumpus said. “I call him ‘little Tom Brady.’ He doesn’t have the greatest arm. He doesn’t have speed. But somehow he makes it happen. He’s made really good decisions so far.”
Prewitt, however, will be without the team’s leading receiver for at least the first part of the season. Cole, a dynamic wideout and electric returner on special teams, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in February during a 7-on-7 tournament in Las Vegas.
Cole said he hopes to return at about the midway point of the season.
“You can’t really replace a guy like him, especially when you were counting on him being there this year,” Bumpus said. “But he’s still out here practicing. He’s not full-go, but he’s getting some work in.
“Hopefully if we make the run that I think we can make in the playoffs, we’ll have him back and he’ll hop right back in and finish where he left off.”
While Monroe will begin the season without its top three offensive playmakers from a year ago, the Bearcats return their entire starting offensive line of seniors Josh Jerome, Nathan Mead, Eli Tofilau, Peyton McMahon and Austin Steltz.
“This is the most veteran line I’ve ever had, and probably the best line I’ve ever had, at least on paper,” Bumpus said. “Size-wise, we pass the eyeball test without a doubt. Our line is definitely the strength of our team this year.”
On defense, Monroe lost the standout linebacking tandem of JJ Jerome and Josh Felder to graduation. But returning to anchor that side of the ball is JJ’s brother, Josh Jerome, a two-way lineman who verbally committed earlier this month to play football at Eastern Washington University.
“Overall, he’s our best ballplayer on the team,” Bumpus said. “We’re expecting big things from him. If he stays healthy, he should be the best defensive lineman in our league, and possibly in the state. We go as far as guys like him take us.”
And with how far the Monroe program has come in recent years, expectations surrounding the Bearcats have been raised.
“I think we’re getting to the point now where people expect us to win and we expect to win,” Bumpus said. “So now it’s about putting in the work and going from there.”