It’s been a curious — and fruitful — 2017 for the Monroe High football team.
Since opening the season with a rout of Central Linn and a loss at St. Paul, the Dragons’ opponents have lacked diversity. Monroe is a perfect 8-0 over the past nine weeks, collecting two wins apiece over Kennedy, Stanfield, Lost River and Oakland.
The second-seeded Dragons (9-1) will finally get a fresh look in Saturday’s 2A state semifinals against No. 3 Knappa (10-0), champion of the Northwest League. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Central High in Independence.
The winner moves on to face No. 1 St. Paul (10-0) or No. 5 Santiam (10-1) in next week’s finals.
“The fact that we can play Knappa and they haven’t seen anything we’ve run is kind of refreshing,” senior lineman Keith Saito said prior to the team’s Tuesday practice at Corvallis High. “It’s been a little weird to see the same kids twice, the same offenses twice. I feel like it’s been good for us and bad for us at times because winning the first time and coming back, you can definitely throw it into neutral.”
The Dragons, who are in the semis for the first time since 1970, did exactly that in last week’s victory over 10th-seeded Kennedy.
After drilling the Trojans 28-0 in Week 3, Monroe stormed out to a 28-7 halftime lead in the quarterfinals. Kennedy, a state semifinalist last year, scored a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to get back in the game.
Monroe recovered a late onside kick to seal a 41-35 win.
“That was a really good test for us,” said sophomore running back and linebacker Zach Young. “It forced us to make plays when we needed to, because we could be in a situation like that again later in the playoffs.”
Prior to the quarterfinals, Monroe’s closest game had been a 20-point victory over Oakland on Oct. 6. The Dragons suffered a 42-12 loss at St. Paul and won their first eight games by an average of 33.6 points.
In Mountain View Conference play, Monroe’s margin of victory was 30.3. The MVC featured just three teams — Lost River, Oakland and Monroe — this year while the Dragons coincidentally had nonleague and playoff matchups with Kennedy and Stanfield.
“It was great to see a team fight back like that,” Saito said of the Trojans. “It was definitely a shot to the face, and we needed that to be able to come back and play for all four quarters.”
Monroe should receive another stiff test in Knappa, which averages 46.7 points per game offensively while giving up just 11.9.
The Loggers’ dynamic spread attack is spearheaded by quarterback Kaleb Miller, the Northwest League offensive player of the year. The 6-foot, 165-pound senior recently signed with Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, for baseball.
“It’s a very athletic team,” Monroe coach Bill Crowson said. “They throw the ball a lot, have good skill position players and a good-looking set of linemen. It’s the playoffs, so you really can’t expect anything other than that.”
Monroe plans to use its strong running game to challenge the Loggers’ defense.
Knappa surrendered 32 points in the opening round against Bandon and 34 in last week’s quarterfinal victory over Oakland. With Northwest League defensive player of the year Mason Hoover leading the way at linebacker, the Loggers had allowed just 13 total points in their previous three games.
“I am really excited to play Monroe football and run straight at them,” Saito said. “We are going to put as much weight as we can behind our line and try to run kids over. We’re not going to run around or play those games, we’re going to run straight through them.”
Added Young: “Semifinals have been the goal since we started this year. It’s time to take advantage of that opportunity now that we’re here.”