The Monroe City football team completed an undefeated run to the Class 1 state championship last season but refuses to dwell on that success.

The Monroe City football team cemented its place in history last season by completing an undefeated run to the Class 1 state championship.

But the Panthers are not dwelling on their success.

“Great that we won state, but now it’s time to forget about that because this is a new year,” said rising senior quarterback Blake Hays.

Monroe City coach David Kirby refuses to allow the 15-0 record from a year ago to affect the way his team prepares for the upcoming campaign, which kicks off Friday against Centralia at Lankford Field.

The reigning state champions inevitably will get the best effort from each opponent — especially through the weekly challenges of the Clarence Cannon Conference.

With continued dedication, Kirby believes there is potential for another special season. 

“Every year the team takes on a completely new identity,” Kirby said. “You’ve got kids who mature and step up and become more confident. We’ve got systems in place and now we’re going to come in and see who takes the reins on offense, defense and special teams.” 

Monroe City will rely on its run offense to be a juggernaut again after averaging 320 rushing yards per game and eight yards per carry last season. 

Zach Osborn, a senior running back, defensive back and special teams star, returns as the centerpiece of the Panthers’ run-oriented game plan. 

Osborn, fast and sneaky in the open field with his 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame, rushed for 1,561 yards and scored 21 touchdowns last year to earn all-state accolades. 

“We have to pick up a different mentality,” Osborn said of the Panthers this upcoming season. “Now that we’ve got that target on our back, we’ve really got to step our game up even more. That’s going to make us better.”

Osborn joins Gage Bottoms and Keenan Batsell in a deep, dynamic backfield looking to pick up where it left off. 

Hays is back after passing for 876 yards and rushing for 300 more a season ago, when he accounted for 19 touchdowns and threw just one interception. 

Nehemiah Batsell, Kaelin Kendrick-O’Bryan and Lance Williams are the top receivers on the Panthers’ roster at Hays’ disposal.

“It’s nice having so many weapons,” Hays said. 

Jon Saxbury, Max Hays, Jadon Underhill, Danny Dennison and Cole Kleindienst will be keys up front for the offensive line, which will protect and clear the way for the stable of playmakers.

“It’s been really fun to watch the offensive line progress,” Kirby said. “The older kids are coaching the younger kids, and that part really gets me excited because they have a vested interest in what we’re doing.”

Saxbury and Max Hays return with all-state honors to anchor the Panthers’ defensive line. Saxbury is the team’s top returning tackler after making 59 stops last year, while Max Hays led the way with seven sacks. 

Monroe City, which allowed fewer than 13 points per game last season, brings back a trio of experienced linebackers in Hunter Lilly, Nolan Pennewell and Gatlin Bichsel.

Blake Hays, Nehemiah Batsell and Osborn return as defensive backs.

“We know we’ve got a pretty special group, so hopefully we can put the pieces together and be successful again this year,” Kirby said.