2018 Gridiron: Monroe City Panthers
Total Returning Lettermen: 22
2017 Overall Record: 15-0
Head Coach: David Kirby
Years at School: 8
Record at School: 40-23
Overall Record: 40-23
GRIDIRON THANOS COMMANDS YOUR OBEDIENCE: GENERATIONAL COLLECTION OF WEAPONS POSITIONS PANTHERS ONCE AGAIN AT THE EPICENTER OF THE MISSOURI SMALL SCHOOL FOOTBALL UNIVERSE
TITLETOWN GLEAMS ANEW: So yeah, I suppose 2017 went kinda okay for David Kirby and the Monroe City Panthers. Ran the Clarence Cannon and Regular Season tables. Earned a District Title at South Shelby’s expense. Punched a return ticket to the Show Me Bowl with impressively gritty wins over Westran, East Buchanan in the Class 1 bracket. Vanquished Valle Catholic on the Big Stage to earn the program’s first state championship hoist since 1996. Fifteen up. Fifteen down.
THE LOOT TRAIN: That shiny new addition to the Trophy Case wasn’t the only prize the Panthers brought home from CoMo last November. The Panther talent coffers still overflow. And unlike this time last year, Monroe City’s nucleus (twenty two lettermen and eleven returning starters strong) consists of guys who have already figured out that essential riddle of what it takes to win it all. That is a massive leap forward because paying the price of greatness is no longer a blind leap of faith for Monroe City kids. There’s now tangible results-based evidence that hard work can carry you to your goals and with that comes a higher level of instant buy-in. That makes the job of coaching any team (even one that on paper is this talented) easier. That’s not to suggest Monroe City is guaranteed anything in 2018. If anything, the degree of difficulty on a repeat is infinitely higher than winning that first trophy; especially when you consider the quality of pieces Monroe City graduated and the bull’s eye now on the Panthers back. Not to mention the ever looming specter of complacency that Champions have to battle. And just for funsies: has anyone looked around the Clarence Cannon Conference lately? Clark County might be more talented on paper today than Monroe City was last Fall. Macon, Centralia, and Palmyra didn’t exactly take a step backwards either. Scotland County and South Shelby will be no picnic come District Time. And the overall schedule Monroe City plays grew harder still with the voluntary additions of Jeff City Helias and Illinois Power West Hancock. Not to bruise anyone’s ego here but there’s a painfully thin line here between 9-0 in the regular season and 4-5 when you load up the slate the way the Panthers have for the Fall. Motivation, not talent, will ultimately be the field tilter here. One way or another.
NEXT SUPERHERO UP: The temptation in talking preseason Panther Football is to dwell on Monroe City’s ridiculously well-stocked pantry of Skill Position weapons and let your mind boggle at the sheer possibility that offense will present. We will unpack all of that in a bit. From a critical standpoint, however, I am far more fascinated by what happens next with the MC Defense. On the surface, this a unit that returns a half dozen starters and a pair of All-State performers responsible for crafting the kind of dominance that held Panther foes to less than 13 points and 230 yards of total offense a game. Not a bad scenario at all. But on closure inspection, I’d argue that Monroe graduated the two best players from that Defense and that trying to replace Cole Pennewell; and perhaps to a greater extent Dawson Shively might be the single hardest task any team in Tri-State Football faces this preseason. Amongst the very best players in Tri-State Football this Summer, Pennewell and Shively were the two biggest individual standouts during Do-or-Die Bowl Pracitices; with the QND coaches unabashedly raving about both All Staters. So I think it’s fair to wonder how a Monroe Secondary that gave up a microscopic 79 yards per game passing last Fall replicates that in his absence. Monroe will bring back Speedsters Blake Hays and Zach Osborn to that cause in the Defensive Backfield, both of them returning All District Performers. But there will be changes afoot here as well and no existing safety net. Monroe doesn’t lack for athletes here with Cody Porter returning to help alleviate the lost production of Shively and the unsung Nathan Mehrer. Don’t sleep on Brennan Wisdom, Gatlin Bichsel or Antwuan Battle moving into this mix as well. Collectively, Monroe City’s Defensive Backfield will be rife with closing speed. What remains to be seen is if this group can rise to the level of coverage and on-ball skill that last year’s achieved. That’s a bigger issue than most people realize going in.
Pennewell’s lost production (some 114 tackles and 13 stops for loss) will be assumed largely by committee. Hunter Lilly (5’9” 175lbs) raised his game late in the year, delivered an outstanding (if criminally overlooked) personal effort against Palmyra, and turned himself into an All-District Performer at Linebacker down the stretch. He and the fleet-football Gage Bottoms profile as a considerable interior Linebacker presence. Nolan Pennewell (5’11” 185lbs) had a number of head-turning moments the last two Falls and seems poised for a major personal breakout on the outside edge. He can really pop the pads. Again, as with the Secondary, Monroe City Linebackers have something to prove here individually in the absence of former area standard bearing teammates. That should put a sizeable chip on some shoulders.
FEEDING FRENZY: Given the talent in play, Monroe City’s Defensive Line has no excuse to be anything but the best unit of its kind in the Tri-States and perhaps, all of Missouri Small School Football. The Panthers return two All-State pillars here in Tackle Jonathon Saxbury and Defensive End Max Hays. For beleaguered Panther foes, it must feel like the 280 pound Saxbury is on his tenth year of eligibility. He was a two-way star for this program almost from the jump and he just keeps getting better. He had 64 tackles as a Junior in a defensive system rigged against him (and in favor of the Linebackers) as well as a team high 13 stops for loss. He’s a force of nature collapsing Offensive Lines. Hays looks like the next “it” guy for Monroe after debuting with eight quarterback sacks as a Sophomore. He’s paid the price in the weight room and now checks in at 6’2” 235 pounds without any attrition of speed. He’s going to be a dangerous, dangerous man and a good dark horse pick for CCC Defensive POY honors given his aggression and his ability to break on running backs like a Great White Shark on a wounded Sea Lion. This unit should profit from Kennan Batsell’s leg drive at Nose Guard moving forward. He’s a bit undersized at 185 pounds but his quickness and mobility will be a welcomed addition. Jadon Underhill, Shane Tate, Evan Janes, and Ed Washington are prospective entrants into this rotation as well. Defensive Coordinator Brock Edris should have ample mix-and-match options here.
BOTTOM’S UP: Offensively, David Kirby works from a base of five returning starters from a unit that went for 41 points and 377 yards a game last Fall. Four of those gentlemen are either returning All State, All District, or All Conference level honorees. Absent Cole Pennewell, the Panthers return all of the other dimensions of their Wing-T backfield (which netted 319 ground yards per game.) All State Wing Back Zach Osborn is the returning headliner here, the 2017 KHQA MO/IA Offensive MVP after rushing for 1565 yards and 21 touchdowns. The 5’9” 155 pound Senior is elusiveness personified; a darting gear-shifter with the ability to find daylight to the edge or weaving his way between the tackles. When you average 11 yards per carry, you are clearly doing something right. Zach brings added value here as a Pass Catcher and All State Return Specialist. He is as dangerous a home run threat as exists in Tri-State Football and strangely, is one of those rare kids who actually seems yet another obscene gear faster when he’s got the football in his hands. He’s a special talent and not many High School kids have a prayer of staying in front of him on Defense. Expect another Fall of ample Sensational Seven worthy material from the young man.
Gage Bottoms, who added a critical 75 yards on the ground, in the Panthers win over Valle Catholic, seems poised for an uptick in usage. As a counterpunch to Osborn’s frenetic persona, Bottoms is an effortless glider of a runner. He always seems to be gaining ground on opponents, has a nice knack for bouncing the football outside, and is a looming threat in the passing game as well. And Gage very quietly had a knack last year for coming up with needed production in critical spots. He’s a very underrated weapon but one who figures to thrive as opponents try to account for all of the other Panther weapons.
The critical Fullback role here likely falls to Keenan Batsell, who looked determined and tough to bring down in spot duty when Cole Pennewell sat out last year. Keenan runs with great lower body strength and he’s not the kind of kid you want to try and tackle up around the shoulder area, lest he run right over the back of you. Monroe City has some depth here as well, including Nolan Pennewell, to help go “heavy” in short yardage situations, so I don’t expect this Running Game to miss a beat.
CAUGHT IN A HAYS: Perhaps the most critical development in Monroe City’s Championship run last year was Blake Hays maturation process at Quarterback. The 5’10” 155lb Senior to be has clearly gotten comfortable at the controls of the Panther Offense; evolving from game manager to game changer since his Sophomore debut. Blake has always been able to throw the football. Last year, however, was the first time Blake actually looked like he knew he could throw the football well. You’d be hard pressed to find a kid who delivers with such accuracy while on the move. And man can he move. Blake might well be the fastest Quarterback in the Tri-States and when he tucks the ball to run, the entire complexion of the field itself changes. He’s got end zone-reaching burst from anywhere on the field and is great at reading avenues to the first down marker when things break down. In fact, he’s almost better when chaos ensues. Blake also put together a remarkable string of games without throwing a single interception last Fall. For my money, he’s the top QB in the Tri-States this Fall. And he figures to be even scarier with another year of polish under his belt.
The more exciting element of this development is that Blake will have a clear Number One target in the mix in Wide Receiver Nehemiah Batsell, who burst on the scene last Fall from off radar. A rare athlete with unreal hands, body contortion and speed, Batsell looms as one of the toughest individual kids to check in NEMO Football this season. See also Neh’s signature moment in the first win over South Shelby. He made THE play in last year’s State Championship Game; proving his big stage value. And should continue to benefit from receiving space amongst MC’s load skill position performers and heaven help the opponent who tries to cover this kid one-on-one in that spirt. Hays will also have new weapons in play as well this year when David Kirby elects to go to the air. Lance Williams and Kealin Kendrick O’Bryan (from heretofore KKO for highlight spewing purposes) both look like viable additions to an already potent attack. Both are flyers with good size who are really going to stretch the field even thinner.
THE UNDERHILL GANG: Monroe City has some rebuild work to do on the Offensive Line, but gets to frame up the new parts here around All State Center Jonathon Saxbury and returning stalwart Jadon Underhill. The former might be the most dominant point of attack battering ram in our region. The later, a 6’2” 240 pound All District pick really came into his own as a Junior. Jadon is an athlete. He works downhill on his defender. He has active and quick feet. And has proven to quite the hand-fighter. Not to mention really great Linemen’s genes. Those two Seniors will have to hold the rope early, however, as the Panthers will employ three new starters this Fall in the one real “question area” on the roster coming into the year. But given the track record of Monroe City Offensive Linemen standing up for one another in the Player Development aspect of the game, I would not get my hopes up for much of a performance fall off if I am a Future Panther Opponent. The next man up mentality is a real badge of honor among MC Linemen.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: Employing my expert powers of football analysis I am going to go way out on a limb here and say Monroe City is going to be pretty freaking good in 2018. The outlier ability here to thin a defense ranks with the great Carthage Blueboy Dynasty teams of the late 1990’s in our.except I’d argue Jim Unruh didn’t have the luxury of playing a Quarterback this talented during the Three Peat Days. We are talking a rare and historic window of opportunity here for these kids and this program. If these guys deliver on their potential, this has a chance to be the best High School Offense we see in our Lifetime in these parts. That’s not a line I deliver casually; given the incredible football our region has produced. And it remains to be seen if the Panthers actually get there. But I am not doing my job if I don’t hold this group up to the light for you and say “Here’s what Monroe City is potentially capable of” for comparison’s sake. That established, they don’t give trophies for “Best Offense Ever.” And as previously stated, Monroe City faces one of the highest threat levels we’ve ever seen for a Defending State Champion. And it’s not like the Panthers don’t have some important internal questions of their own to answer before we even get to that brutally tough opener with arch-nemesis Centralia. I’ll offer this warning: If David Kirby doesn’t have concrete answers from some of the positional newcomers in play by September 14th, it could be a long slog to the District for even a team with this kind of potential. Nash Waller and Bradley Butner are going to put the Panther Secondary’s feet to the fire when Macon comes to town. Then it’s the Front Seven that gets its baptism by fire with brutish Bryce Wilson (he of the 41 reps of 225 pounds that would make NFL Combine Guys blush) and blazer Brock Wood as West Hancock and South Shelby take their swings at the King. And don’t even get me started on what might be the most brutish October slate we’ve ever seen with a road trip to Helias, followed by that Clark County/Palmyra doubleheader headed into Districts. And to be frank here, I do think those whispers out there that Clark County, not Monroe is the best returning team in the area are, at the very least worthy, of some discussion. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, my friends. All that established, I love the fact that this Monroe City team has been given no room to relax or rest on its laurels. Greatness is born of great challenge. David Kirby knows this better than anyone and he is to be admired for going where most coaches fear to tread as the anti-Bill Snyder. You don’t add West Hancock and Helias to your schedule if you are looking for the false confidence brought on by padding your schedule with easy wins. Kirby is begging someone to punch his kids in the mouth because I suspect even he wants to see what greatness that evokes. This will be the best tested Class 1 Football team in the state of Missouri by the time Districts rolls around; so much so that the postseason climb back to the Show Me Bowl from there looks easier by compare. The method to that madness is clear. The Panthers could well have all of the positional “infinity stones” in place when they need them the most. If so, heaven help the rest of the State of Missouri when it’s time for MC to “snap” as there may be no earthly defense to stop these guys from achieving their fate.