MONROE — The Monroe High School football team faced a difficult task last season.
Not only were last year’s young and inexperienced Bearcats tasked with replacing a slew of graduated talent, but they also were following in the shadow of two all-time great Monroe teams. The Bearcats’ 2016 squad reached the state playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century, and their historic 2017 team earned the program’s first-ever state quarterfinal berth.
Some growing pains were to be expected last year, and Monroe certainly had its share. Facing an arduous schedule, the Bearcats finished 4-6 for their first losing season since 2013.
“We definitely had a lot of juniors (last year) who hadn’t played on a Friday night, and they followed one of the best teams this school has ever had,” fifth-year Monroe coach Michael Bumpus said. “… And when you lose a couple guys (to injuries) and you have that youth, you’re going to go through some hard times. But in the end, I think it was good for us.”
After taking their lumps last year and returning the vast majority of their roster, the Bearcats are eyeing a bounceback season.
“This is a resilient group,” Bumpus said. “This is Monroe. This isn’t a destination town, so we’re used to having to dig ourselves out of holes and bounce back. And if we stay healthy, I think we’ll be able to do that.”
Monroe’s hopes begin with a potentially explosive offense that returns plenty of key pieces. Even with last year’s youth and inexperience, the Bearcats averaged 39.6 points per game in Wesco 4A play — just 1.1 points fewer than conference runner-up Glacier Peak.
“I always tell my defensive coordinator, ‘Man, if you can hold (the opponent) to 30, we’ve got a chance,’” said Bumpus, who also is Monroe’s offensive coordinator. “I feel like it’s tough to hold us down, especially when we have talent (at receiver) on the outside.”
The Bearcats’ talented group of wideouts is led by Eastern Washington University-bound senior Efton Chism III, who totaled 771 yards receiving and 12 touchdown catches last season. The 5-foot-11 all-purpose standout also excels on defense and special teams, where he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
“He’s the best route-runner in the state,” said Bumpus, a former Washington State University star and Seattle Seahawks receiver. “If he was 6-1, he’d have Pac-12 offers all day.”
Also back is junior Trey Lane, who was the Bearcats’ second-leading receiver last year with 555 yards and six touchdowns.
And poised for a potential breakout season is senior J.R. Little, who is listed as a three-star recruit by 247Sports.com. Little didn’t post big numbers last year, but Bumpus said he expects the 6-foot-2 wideout and team’s “smoothest receiver” to make some noise this fall.
“This is probably the best receiving corps that I’ve coached while I’ve been here,” Bumpus said.
Throwing to the talented group of wideouts is senior Gio Fregoso, who returns for his second season as starting quarterback. Last year, the lefty completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,000 yards. He threw 20 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
The Bearcats also figure to benefit from the return of senior offensive linemen Gavin Monroe and Casey Lynch, who both suffered season-ending injuries in the first two games of last year. Their return should provide a significant boost for what’s shaping up to be a massive group up front.
“We’ll be one of the biggest lines in the league and the state,” Bumpus said.
On defense, two-way standout linebacker Blake Rybar leads a unit that’s looking to rebound after struggling last season against quality opponents. In its six games against teams with winning records, Monroe allowed an average of 44.7 points per contest.
Bumpus said new defensive coordinator Zach Nelson — who was the defensive backs coach at Glacier Peak last year — has focused on fundamentals.
“That’s what I love about coach Nelson,” Bumpus said. “He’s really just about the fundamentals and technique. If your foundation is fundamentals and technique, when it comes to scheme, you’ll automatically be able to do it, because your foundation is so strong. And that’s kind of been the emphasis of our offseason.”
Monroe once again faces a challenging schedule, including four state-playoff teams from last year. The Bearcats hit the ground running with non-league matchups against KingCo 4A powers Eastlake and Woodinville — both state-playoff teams last season — before opening conference play in Week 3 against six-time defending Wesco 4A champion and reigning 4A state runner-up Lake Stevens.
“I feel like that’s going to be huge for us, because that’s going to set the tone,” Chism III said. “Those are (three) of the best teams in the state. … It’s going to make us better overall as a team.”