The Lake Stevens and Monroe high school football teams certainly are no strangers to big games against each other.
In both 2016 and 2017, the Vikings and Bearcats met in a winner-take-all regular-season finale with unblemished conference records and a Wesco 4A title at stake.
And though this year’s matchup occurs at the beginning of league play, it’s once again brimming with potential conference-title implications.
Both teams already have proven themselves against elite competition during the non-league slate, setting the stage for another highly anticipated Wesco 4A clash between the two longtime rivals Friday night at Lake Stevens High School.
“The winner has an early lead on trying to win that league championship,” Vikings coach Tom Tri said. “This game is huge. It’s Monroe-Lake Stevens. It’s been a huge rivalry game for years and years, even before I was a coach. … It’s a game that we’ve had circled on our calendar for a long time.”
Although these teams have squared off in some massive showdowns against each other recently, it’s been very much a one-sided affair.
Six-time defending Wesco 4A champion Lake Stevens has beaten Monroe in 12 of the teams’ last 13 meetings, including six straight times by an average of 33.7 points per game. That includes back-to-back blowout victories over eventual Monroe state-playoff teams in those 2016 and 2017 de facto conference-title games. The Vikings rolled to a 42-3 running-clock rout in 2016 and a 38-12 win in 2017, the latter coming against a Bearcats squad that went on to reach the state quarterfinals for the first time in program history.
Yet despite the recent struggles against their rival to the north, Monroe coach Michael Bumpus said his Bearcats aren’t worried about the past.
“I’ve tried to just let the kids know, ‘This is you, this is your legacy, this is your team,’” Bumpus said. “‘Anything that happened in the past doesn’t matter. … This is the 2019 Bearcats against the 2019 Vikings, and you get an opportunity to write your own story.’”
After battling youth and inexperience during last year’s 4-6 campaign, Monroe returned the vast majority of its roster and is eyeing a bounceback season. The Bearcats (1-1) are off to quite the start so far, splitting a pair of one-point games against KingCo 4A teams that reached the state playoffs last year.
Monroe opened with a 42-41 overtime win over Eastlake, rallying from a 14-point halftime deficit before blocking an extra point in overtime to key the victory.
The Bearcats then compiled another impressive performance last week against No. 2-ranked Woodinville, a perennial powerhouse that’s coming off a state-semifinal appearance. Monroe led the Falcons 20-7 entering the fourth quarter, but a missed extra point earlier in the game ultimately proved costly, as the three-time defending KingCo 4A champions rallied for a pair of touchdowns to hand the Bearcats a 21-20 defeat.
“It’s funny how it works,” Bumpus said. “Sometimes you win by a kick, sometimes you lose by a kick. … But we were just happy with how our boys battled. Those first two games I guess don’t mean (anything) as far as the league (standings), but it’s just character-building. I think our boys just know that we’re a good football team and we can play with the best of them at this point.”
Yet as Bumpus said, Friday’s showdown against Lake Stevens is the ultimate measuring stick. The Vikings are riding a 38-game Wesco 4A win streak, dating back to 2013.
“Lake Stevens is the best team in the state, and they’ve been one of the best teams in the state the past five years,” Bumpus said. “… I think this will let us know where we stand for real. We’ve played a couple KingCo teams and played well, but Lake Stevens is kind of like the gold standard around here.”
Coming off a trip to the Class 4A state title game last year, the Vikings opened the season with a 55-0 dismantling of Ferndale, outgaining the Golden Eagles in total yardage by a whopping 550-43 margin.
Lake Stevens then took a 4A No. 1 ranking into last week’s showdown in Tacoma, where the Vikings earned a 35-26 win over 3A fifth-ranked Lincoln. Lake Stevens (2-0) trailed early and committed an uncharacteristic three turnovers, but made key plays throughout the night to overcome its mistakes and land a signature victory over a team loaded with college-level talent.
“I think that’ll give us a little playoff experience,” Tri said. “Even though it (was) not a playoff game, it was kind of a playoff atmosphere, and I thought our kids handled that adversity very well.
“Our kids played with a very even-keeled mentality and were not rattled by some of our early mistakes,” he added. “… It was good to see us answer the bell and be able to fight some adversity and still find a way to bounce back and win the game.”
Heading into this pivotal Wesco 4A showdown, here’s a closer look at the matchups on both sides of the ball:
WHEN LAKE STEVENS HAS THE BALL
In their first two games, the Vikings totaled 90 points behind a balanced offensive arsenal.
Senior left guard Logan Bruce helped pave the way for a powerful rushing attack that averaged 7.2 yards per carry, led by senior Dallas Landeros’ 250 yards and five TDs. Junior quarterback Tanner Jellison has been efficient in his first two career varsity starts, completing 75 percent of his passes for 473 yards, five TDs and one interception. And leading the Vikings’ talented receiving corps is senior Kasen Kinchen, who has six catches for 153 yards and a TD.
“They always seem to find a good quarterback,” Bumpus said. “… They’re just disciplined in their passing game, they’re good with their spacing, they’re precise with their routes. (And) on the line, their big boys can move.”
Tasked with slowing down Lake Stevens’ offense is a Monroe defense that struggled last year, but appears to have turned a corner after holding Woodinville to just seven points through three quarters last week. Eastern Washington University-bound senior Efton Chism III intercepted two passes in the game.
“They’re aggressive,” Tri said of the Bearcats’ defense. “They run to the ball really well. They mix up their coverages. They like to bring different blitzes and try to confuse the offensive line. … They tackle well (and) they’re physical.”
WHEN MONROE HAS THE BALL
Similar to the Vikings, Monroe also sports a formidable and balanced offensive attack.
Senior running back Blake Rybar has 440 yards from scrimmage and seven TDs, including 370 yards rushing and six scores on the ground behind the Bearcats’ big and physical offensive line. Senior quarterback Gio Fregoso has completed 71 percent of his passes for 502 yards, one TD and one interception. His top target is Chism, who has 20 receptions for 250 yards.
“They’ve been balanced,” Tri said. “That makes it tough on defense when you have to stop the run and stop the short, intermediate and long passes. That really forces you to defend the whole field.”
Monroe will face a Lake Stevens defense led by three-star senior defensive backs Kinchen and Joe Gonzales and standout senior linebacker Junior Robinson.
“They’re just athletic,” Bumpus said. “They play really hard, they fly to the ball (and) they rally.”
THE EVER-IMPORTANT TURNOVER BATTLE
In a matchup like this between two talented teams, both coaches emphasized the importance of protecting the football.
“We’re going to have to take care of the ball offensively (and) try and move the chains,” Tri said. “I think some of the keys for our success is keeping the ball out of their offense’s hands.”
“They’re going to score — they’re a good football team,” Bumpus said. “We’re going to score — we’re a good football team. But it’s really just minimizing the mistakes and forcing turnovers. Usually if you win the turnover battle, you’re going to win that football game.”