Monroe junior Jack Irwin dives to recover a Liberty fumble on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022 during a game at Monroe High in Monroe, Washington. Monroe forced five turnovers in the game, advancing to the Class 3A round of 16. (Katie Webber / The Herald)

Monroe junior Jack Irwin dives to recover a Liberty fumble on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022 during a game at Monroe High in Monroe, Washington. Monroe forced five turnovers in the game, advancing to the Class 3A round of 16. (Katie Webber / The Herald)

Defense steps up as Monroe tops Liberty to clinch state berth

The Bearcats force five turnovers and score on a blocked punt in a 35-21 win in the Week 10 playoffs.

MONROE — The Monroe High School football team made its name this season primarily through its offense. But Friday night it was the defense and special teams that carried the Bearcats to state.

Monroe forced five turnovers, and the Bearcats advanced to the Class 3A state playoffs with a 35-21 victory over the Liberty (Renton) Patriots in a Week 10 playoff game at Monroe High School.

Monroe’s defense came up with three interceptions and recovered a fumble, and the Bearcats’ special teams recovered another fumble and also blocked a put for a touchdown. The result is that Monroe, which came in averaging 48.2 points per game, still managed to put 35 points on the board despite being held to just 191 yards offense.

“When we need big plays we have big players who come out and make them,” said junior Nick Mouser, who scored the touchdown on the blocked punt and also came up with a critical interception at the end of the first half. “If the offense turns the ball over, we get back on defense and get the ball right back, give the ball back to the offense and the offense scores.”

Mason Davis and Gavin Ranz each scored two touchdowns for Monroe (9-1), which advanced to the state round of 16. The 12th-seeded Bearcats, who are headed to state for the first time since they were a 4A school in 2017, will find out their opponent Sunday.

“It’s good, man,” Davis, a sophomore who helped fill in for the injured Beau Pruett, said about making it to state. “I’m just so proud of this team. We worked so hard, and for us to come out and execute today was good.

“(Pruett) is a huge part of our team, and not having him is tough,” Davis added. “But guys step up and make plays, and we win games.”

Rohne Klein passed for 163 yards and two touchdowns to lead 21st-seeded Liberty (7-3).

It was an ominous start for Monroe, which was forced to punt on its first possession as star running back Pruett limped off the field with a knee injury. Pruett didn’t return to the game, and the offense was hindered by his absence, along with a Liberty pass rush that sacked Bearcats quarterback Blake Springer five times.

But Monroe’s defense and special teams picked up the slack. It began immediately after that opening punt. The Bearcats forced the Patriots to punt, and Palepoi Notoa reached a long arm out to block it. Mouser scooped up the loose ball and returned it 20 yards for the game’s opening score.

”It was a really windy night, it was hard to throw the ball down the field and we had some injuries early. We just had to overcome,” Monroe coach Scott Darrow said. “Our special teams stepped up, and our defense got those turnovers against a good offense. It takes a whole team, if you’re going to win in the playoffs it takes a whole team.”

That became the pattern of the game, as big plays on defense and special teams either stymied Liberty scoring chances or set up short fields for Monroe’s offense to score. Ranz’s interception and long return set the Bearcats up on a short field, with Ranz finishing it off himself by leaping over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 late in the first quarter.

Then after the teams traded second-quarter touchdowns — Monroe’s was scored on an electrifying 52-yard end around by Davis on which he showed off his blinding speed — Monroe was able to maintain a 21-7 halftime lead when Mouser intercepted a pass in the end zone with just 6 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Liberty made things interesting in the third quarter, taking the opening kick and driving 74 yards, culminating in Eli Shafer’s 20-yard run on an inside counter that cut Monroe’s lead to 21-14. Monroe’s offense couldn’t get anything going, giving the Patriots the ball back with a chance to tie. However, a botched pitch on a reverse play on third-and-one was recovered by Notoa at midfield to stymie one chance early in the fourth quarter. Monroe took advantage, with Springer hitting Davis on a short pass and Davis eluding defenders to score a 13-yard touchdown that stretched the lead to 27-14.

One more time Monroe used a turnover to score points, with Jacob Reeves’ pick setting up Ranz for a 5-yard TD dive, making it 35-14 with 3:09 remaining and rendering a late Liberty TD as merely a consolation.

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