Monroe players warm-up at halftime during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Monroe players warm-up at halftime during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Hot start has senior-laden Monroe in league contention

After finishing with a 5-12 overall record a season ago, the Bearcats boys have raced out to a 13-3 start this season.

As the high school basketball scene segues into the final weeks of regular-season play, the Wesco 3A/2A boys league’s top contenders find themselves still jockeying for position at the top of the ladder.

Perhaps one of the most surprising teams in pursuit of a conference title over the course of the year has been the Monroe Bearcats.

After being picked to finish seventh in the league in a preseason coaches poll, the ‘Cats got going quickly out of the gates, chalking up wins in their first 12 games of the year and they sit third in the conference standings at 13-3 (9-3 league).

“I’m pleasantly surprised how we all came together really fast and hit the ground running,” fourth-year coach Justin Prohn said. “I think all the trust we’ve developed and having time together in the summer really helped propel us off to this start.”

Monroe’s Lucas McCullough (23), left, reacts with Eli Miller (4) during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Monroe’s Lucas McCullough (23), left, reacts with Eli Miller (4) during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

During the 2021-22 season, Monroe finished 5-12 overall and 4-9 in league play, and the Bearcats already have more than doubled their win total from all of last season.

With a senior-laden roster, the Bearcats find themselves squarely in the mix for what would be their first league title since 2011.

The production from 6-foot-1 senior shooting guard Steve Kuhnle Jr. has been one of the key reasons for Monroe’s hot start. The long range 3-point gunner leads the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game to go along with 3.0 steals a contest, with one of the ‘Cats most memorable moments of the year coming on Jan. 7 against Stanwood (13-3, 8-3), when Kuhnle hit a go-ahead triple in the final 20 seconds to help lift Monroe to a 54-52 win.

Fellow senior and 6-foot-5 post Hayden Creswell has been another consistent double-digit scoring threat for the Bearcats, notching 11.2 points a night, adding 6.1 boards and shooting 48% from the field, and senior point guard Brock Brown is the leading distributor for the squad with 4.0 assists per game, offering up a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Monroe coach Justin Prohn (center) instructs his players during a timeout in a game against Edmonds-Woodway on Jan. 20 in Monroe. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Monroe coach Justin Prohn (center) instructs his players during a timeout in a game against Edmonds-Woodway on Jan. 20 in Monroe. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Prohn also praised seniors Reid Schaeffer and Kody Edelbrock as two other important components to success on both ends of the floor, as well as Ethan Hogan, who is one of just two juniors on the roster.

“We’re a very senior-heavy team this year,” Prohn said. “We’re sharing the basketball and making the next pass and they’ve really bought into that this season. Every game in the Wesco isn’t easy right now, the coaching is so good and there’s so many great players. Every night, no matter what team you play, it’s a challenge.”

Monroe currently comes in at 14th for Class 3A in the WIAA’s RPI rankings system as they join five other schools from the Wesco in the top-25, not including Cedarcrest, which ranks 23rd in 2A.

Monroe players and coaching staff stand for the national anthem during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Monroe players and coaching staff stand for the national anthem during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

When it comes to close matchups, the ‘Cats have excelled in those moments and have taken care of business in the clutch, going 5-1 in games decided by two possessions or less after an 0-4 mark in the same scenarios a season ago.

Defensively, they’ve relinquished just 54.3 points a night in league play and rank fifth in Wesco 3A/2A in total points allowed.

“Our ability to be in those games has been special for us,” Prohn said. “We’ve got seven or eight guys who can really put the ball in the hoop, and learning to trust each other in those situations has been big for us. A lot of it has come with maturity and the experiences they had last year, and I think they’ve really grown from that.”

Monroe students wiggle their fingers for good luck during a free-throw during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Monroe students wiggle their fingers for good luck during a free-throw during a game between the Monroe Bearcats and the Edmonds-Woodway Warriors at Monroe High School in Monroe, on Jan. 20. The Bearcats defeated the Warriors, 68-57. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

As Monroe preps for the rest of its schedule, which includes games against Shorewood (8-8), Everett (10-6) and Arlington (13-2), the Bearcats find themselves with some tough tests at the end of the line.

“It’s so interesting right now,” Prohn said of the Wesco league race. “There’s some really big games for us, but we’re trying to not look too far ahead. Right now, you’ve got to take care of your own stuff and you can’t control whats going to happen. You can only control one game at a time.

“For us to be in the mix and where we’re at, it’s a big accomplishment (and) we’ll continue getting better. We’re close to playing our best basketball. .. As a fan, this is pretty exciting, as a coach you’re kinda pulling your hair out a bit. I hope the rest of the state is really respecting what’s happening in our league, because there’s some great basketball talent right now.”

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