Monroe’s Rafael Garnica goes up for a header during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Rafael Garnica goes up for a header during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Culture shift leads to big turnaround for Monroe boys soccer

After many years of losing, the Bearcats are hoping to earn the program’s first state berth in 20 years.

For many years winning wasn’t the norm for the Monroe High School boys soccer program.

From 2012-19, the Bearcats went 24-91-14 over eight seasons. They finished second-to-last or worse in league play seven times and never won more than six games in a single campaign.

But last year the tides started to turn for Monroe.

The Bearcats finished 8-1-1 during a condensed season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their eight wins was the most in a season in over decade, despite playing roughly half the amount of games as a normal season.

That success has continued on into this year as Monroe finds itself in prime position to do something it hasn’t done in 20 years — qualify for the state tournament.

The Bearcats wrapped up their regular season with a 4-0 shutout of Cascade on Tuesday. The victory was the team’s 13th of 2022. And with 21 combined wins over the past two seasons, no high school boys soccer team in Snohomish County has won more games than Monroe since last spring.

The Bearcats (13-2-1, 12-2-1 Wesco 3A/2A) look to write the next chapter in their storybook turnaround by grabbing one of four state tournament berths up for grabs in the Class 3A District 1 tournament, which starts Thursday. Monroe, seeded third, earned a bye into Saturday’s quarterfinals and will host the winner of Ferndale-Arlington.

Monroe’s Nolan Kelly kicks the ball during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Nolan Kelly kicks the ball during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“It’s amazing to think of considering Monroe hasn’t gone anywhere with soccer in a recent amount of time,” senior defender Joseph Gunter said of playing for a chance at qualifying for the state tournament. “It’s kind of cool that we can maybe put Monroe on the map.”

The Bearcats have certainly put themselves on the map at least locally with their dominant performance on the pitch this spring. They’ve outscored opponents 54 to 15 while netting three or more goals in 12 games and holding opponents to one score or less 14 times. Eleven of their wins have come by at least two goals.

The past two seasons have been a rapid reversal of fortune for the program considering there was no season in 2020 after the Bearcats went just 3-11-2 the previous year.

Missing out on that 2020 season gave the team a sense of gratefulness to play the game when high school sports returned from COVID cancellations in 2021, Monroe coach Korey Hope said.

“The pandemic is obviously a challenge for the globe and very difficult times,” said Hope, who took over as the team’s head coach in 2019 after spending one season as an assistant, “but there are some positives that come out of it for some people. And one of those was certainly the gratitude that these boys came out with last year.

“I’m sure some other programs experienced it as well. Seeing something that they look forward to so much like the school soccer season getting taken away completely out of their control … it made them come out the next year focused, ready to go and grateful to be there. I think that speaks volumes to their mentality.”

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal chases down the ball during a game against Arlington on March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal chases down the ball during a game against Arlington on March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

But it wasn’t simply just players showing up happy to play and becoming good over night. The recent run of winning has been the culmination of a culture shift for the program.

Hope, a 2012 Monroe graduate, said he and his new staff of assistants, Tylor Codiga, Cameron Laird and Colten Linder, were “essentially tearing down the foundation and rebuilding.”

“Being competitive comes with making a choice, and there were times in the past where we just didn’t make that choice to be competitive,” Hope said. “Making that choice, you have to follow it up with more effort than you’ve given previously. You have to back it up with your actions.”

“We knew it was going to be a tall order,” Hope added. “Based on our results in the first season it’s obvious that it was as hard as expected. But it was absolutely necessary and it definitely set the stage for what was to come after.”

The Bearcats also needed an identity. Hope and his staff started by emphasizing ball control.

“We want to control the game as much as possible, and the way that you do that is by keeping possession,” Hope said. “That’s something that we notice a lot of teams struggle with is that you put them under pressure and they’ll just kick it long and it’s a 50-50 chance of whether or not they’ll retain it. … We want more possessions than the other team, and we want to keep them running without the ball.”

There were plenty of bumps in the road during that first season. The Bearcats were shutout seven times and were outscored 35-15 in 14 league games. But there were positive signs, too.

Monroe’s Alexis Pacheco-Alonso (center) celebrates a goal with teammate Joshua Gunter (left) during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Alexis Pacheco-Alonso (center) celebrates a goal with teammate Joshua Gunter (left) during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Senior forward Josh Gunter, a freshman on the 2019 team, pointed to a late-season scoreless draw against Jackson, the eventual third-place team in Class 4A that season.

“It just seemed like at the end of the season we started to get everything together,” Josh Gunter said.

Monroe’s players could see their cohesiveness growing, which is something the team lacked heading into the season.

“Going into it we saw that we had a lot of the right players, but it just seems like it didn’t come together,” senior forward Caden Kassa said. “We had good individual players, but as a team it just didn’t really work. There wasn’t really chemistry.”

And though there was no 2020 season for the group to build on, many of its members continued to play together on Snohomish United, a club team.

“(Playing club together) helped a lot,” Joseph Gunter said. “… You can see everybody kind of has the same idea and the same game plan. You can see that all of us are one structure and we aren’t separated.”

The Bearcats came back to the pitch in 2021 and delivered a breakout year, outscoring opponents 54-11 over 10 games.

“It was our first real taste of success,” Hope said. “… That was crucial. Despite not having a postseason, it carried a ton of weight.”

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal is tripped by Arlington’s Emmanuel Escalante during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal is tripped by Arlington’s Emmanuel Escalante during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe graduated nine players from last season’s team but still had plenty of key contributors return this spring, including seniors Kassa, Josh Gunter, Joseph Gunter, Owen Skurdal, Aleksei Price and Alexis Pacheco-Alonso. The senior class also received a boost with newcomers Sam McAfee and Rafael Garnica.

“We have a fantastic group of seniors this year,” Hope said. “It’s awesome because they were the freshmen my first year as the head coach. So, it kind of feels like for us that this is our first true group that only we have had our hands on and had the opportunity to help grow.”

That group hopes the final chapter in its time at Monroe involves a trip to the state tournament, which is something the program hasn’t done since before any of its current players on the were born.

“A state berth has been our goal really since we took over the program,” Hope said. “It sounded absolutely absurd in that first year to say … We’re going to try and seize the opportunity the best we can. We’re very motivated.”

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