MONROE — When the Monroe Bearcats hired Dick Abrams to be their head football coach prior to the 2011 season, his goal was to turn the program into a perennial Wesco contender.
So far, he’s exceeded expectations.
In his first season, Monroe made the playoffs for the first time in 19 years. Last fall, Abrams and his Bearcats delivered a Wesco North 4A championship.
As Abrams enters his third season, the team is focused on defending that title — and so much more.
“We made it to the playoffs last year and personally my goal (this year) is to win a playoff game … or two or three or four,” senior wide receiver/linebacker Hunter Bingham said. “I want to go deep (in the playoffs). We want to win the North and defend our title, but I want to be able to not just say that we made it to the playoffs, but to be able to say that we won a few games.”
As the Bearcats’ win totals have increased, so has the popularity of the program. In Abrams’ first year, about 65 players turned out. This year that number topped 90.
“I think that is part of changing the mentality of the program,” Abrams said.
After stints as head coach at Stanwood, Marysville Pilchuck and Jackson, Abrams came to Monroe in 2010 as an assistant coach under Dave Telford. After Telford resigned prior to the 2011 season, Abrams was named head coach. This year’s senior class at Monroe is the first to have spent four years with Abrams as either an assistant or head coach.
“He’s done great things with our program,” senior running back/linebacker Gabe Moore said. “A lot of guys are buying into it because of him.”
Moore figures to be a key piece in the Bearcats’ efforts to repeat as Wesco North champions. He had quite an example set for him by his older brother Jordan, who starred for the Bearcats in Abrams’ first season, edging out former Mariner star KeiVarae Russell to win the Wesco rushing title.
Gabe picked up where Jordan left off, rushing for 885 yards and adding 213 receiving yards last season. His big-play ability helped the Bearcats to a near-perfect record against Wesco North opponents, their only loss coming to Mount Vernon.
“He can change a game with his big-play ability,” Abrams said. “His breakaway speed, I don’t know if it is as fast as some of the other kids in the league, but I do know that his football speed is really good. That’s what’s exciting about him.”
The loss to Mount Vernon, which won just one league game last season, still stings. Bingham has the MV game circled on his calendar.
“I want to beat Mount Vernon,” he said. “We were a game away from sweeping the North and then they came in here and I’m not going to say ‘stunned us,’ but they beat us on our homecoming and ruined that whole thing. So I want to beat Mount Vernon a lot.”
The team’s new quarterback, junior Andrew Zimmerman, doesn’t discriminate between opponents. “I just want to beat everyone,” he said.
Zimmerman was the JV quarterback a year ago while Bingham and then-senior Mitchell Price shared the varsity duties. Abrams made the decision to hand the reins to Zimmerman this season and move Bingham to wide receiver, where he also excels.
“Hunter is actually a really good quarterback for us, too,” Abrams said. “Hunter could play quarterback, but he’s also a great receiver. So we like putting Hunter at receiver and having Andrew be the guy at quarterback.”
Zimmerman got his feet wet this summer, helping Monroe’s 7-on-7 team win the Seattle Seahawks regional 7-on-7 tournament, The victory earned the team a trip to the nationals in Ohio.
Zimmerman got plenty of work throwing the ball; running is not allowed in 7-on-7. In all, he threw 21 touchdown passes and just one interception.
“Some young kids as they come through and develop at quarterback just seem to have a sense as to where the ball should go,” Abrams said. “Besides having a fairly strong arm, (Zimmerman has) that sense about him where he can see windows open up.”
Zimmerman’s breakout performance in the 7-on-7 tournaments helped earn the trust of his teammates.
“We’ve all played with each other growing up and I’ve noticed in the past season he’s made some great improvements,” Moore said. “We did a lot of passing stuff all summer getting chemistry with each other. He knows where we are going to be. We know where he’s going to throw it.”
Playing several games over the summer also helped Zimmerman deal with the pressure of taking over as the Bearcats’ starting quarterback.
“The more reps we got, I felt more comfortable,” he said. “Since we did go on to higher levels, my nerves were just way down.”
With the quarterback and receivers comfortable with each other, the Bearcats expect to throw the ball more than in the past — and that’s OK with Zimmerman. “I’m a quarterback, so all I want to do is throw the ball,” he said.
As for the 7-on-7 success, Moore looks at it as a stepping stone toward better things.
“It’s cool that it’s a national tournament, but what it comes down to is it’s pretty much practice for us going into the regular season,” Moore said. “It gives us confidence that we have the ability to pass the ball and do some pretty good things against other teams.”
That confidence is key, Abrams said.
“When they line up against a talented kid this year, I don’t think they will be intimidated in any way because they’ve lined up against some of the best kids in the nation,” Abrams said.
So just how good can the Bearcats be in 2013?
“We can be better than we have been in the past two years,” Abrams said. “Last year, we were kind of disappointed with our performance in non-conference games, but then we played well in conference. This year, we have the ability to play well throughout the season. That’s what I really hope the kids can do. I really hope they make it a special season because we are playing every game at a very high level.”
Ultimately, the key to playing consistently at a “high level” will be the performance of the Bearcats’ line, Abrams said.
“It always comes back to — being an old offensive-line coach — your offensive line,” Abrams said. “That’s developing for us. Any question marks that we have are definitely based on our line play. I think our skill people are probably as good as I’ve had since I’ve been here. We’ve got good skill players, it’s just a matter of how our line pans out.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.