MONROE — Prior to the Monroe football team’s state-playoff game last Friday, various billboards and signage throughout town featured the slogan “We Believe” in orange and black.
For years, Monroe’s long-struggling football program has done little to inspire belief.
But these Bearcats are different, and the town of Monroe has rallied around this year’s historic squad.
The Bearcats made program history last Friday, earning their first-ever state-playoff victory with a 21-14 road win over Puyallup in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
“It’s such a good feeling knowing that we’re the first team to ever do that in our town’s history,” Monroe standout senior linebacker Ricky Baker said. “I could tell it really meant a lot to the town. It’s just really brought the town together as a whole.”
Prior to last week, the Monroe football program had lost each of its first six state-playoff games.
The Bearcats made five state appearances from 1986 to 1991, suffering first-round exits each time. That was followed by a 25-year state drought, which included a particularly dismal stretch of 11 losing seasons from 2001 to 2013. Monroe ended the state drought last season, but fell in its state opener.
This year, the Bearcats broke through the opening-round barrier with a milestone victory.
“A lot of the parents who have kids on the team, they went to Monroe High and remember getting their butts kicked every year,” said coach Michael Bumpus, who has guided the Bearcats to 26 wins during his three seasons at the helm. “To bring the town something that’s never been done is awesome.”
But don’t expect this Monroe team to rest on its laurels.
“Winning the first state game in our program’s history was special,” Bearcats senior standout Isaiah Cole said. “But we’re not content. We’re (aiming) for the championship.”
Next up for Monroe is another trip south to Pierce County, where the Bearcats (10-1) will face Sumner (9-2) in a state-quarterfinal contest Saturday night at Sunset Chevrolet Stadium.
It will be a rematch of Sumner’s back-and-forth 58-42 win over Monroe in the opening round of last year’s state playoffs. The Bearcats held a 12-point third-quarter lead and a four-point advantage with nine minutes to go, but Sumner rallied for the game’s final 20 points to end Monroe’s season.
“I’ve been thinking about (that game) for a long time now,” Baker said. “We felt like we blew it. We felt like we beat ourselves.
“It’s definitely a good feeling knowing that we get a second shot at them.”
The senior-laden Bearcats enter the state quarterfinals as a battle-tested squad that’s shown its resolve over the past few weeks.
After rolling to an 8-0 start while outscoring opponents by an average of 40.1 points per contest, Monroe closed the regular season with a 38-12 loss to Lake Stevens in the de facto Wesco 4A title game.
“It was a bit of a reality check for us, but it taught us a lot,” Bumpus said of the loss. “I’m a firm believer that you learn more from losses than wins. And you watch the film a little harder in a loss than you do in a win. And that’s what we did.
“The boys owned their mistakes, the coaches owned their mistakes, and we tried our best to bounce back and prepare at a level we’ve never done before. And it seems to be working out for us.”
The Bearcats rebounded the following week, punching their ticket to state with a dramatic 44-40 playoff win over Mount Si.
Trailing by three points with about two minutes remaining, Monroe’s defense recovered a forced fumble just as Mount Si was on the verge of being able to run out the clock. The Bearcats then drove 77 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 17 seconds to play.
Monroe prevailed in another nail-biter last week, intercepting Puyallup inside the 10-yard line to preserve a seven-point lead with about 2 1/2 minutes to play. The Bearcats then converted a key third down from the shadow of their own goal post to ultimately run out the clock.
“I think the past few weeks have shown that we’re a team that’s not going to fold, and that we can really play with anybody,” Baker said. “(And) I think the better part is that our team has realized that.
“We’re showing everybody else that we can do it, but I think these two back-to-back tough wins have opened our eyes. We just believe that we can do anything we set our minds to.”