Even before the opening kickoff Friday night against the Missouri Military Academy (MMA) at Lankford Field, there were no doubts that the Monroe City Panthers would advance in the Class II District 6 playoffs.
Monroe City raced to a 32-0 lead after the first quarter in a runway 52-0 win over the visiting Colonels. The Panthers were overwhelming, scoring on their fifth offensive play with a Zach Osborn 7-yard touchdown run.
After holding MMA to a three-and-out on the next series, the Panthers scored not more than two minutes later on a one-play drive – a Blake Hays 38-yard pass to Kaelin Kendrick-O’Bryan for a touchdown. After recovering an MMA fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Hays nailed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Osborn, giving Monroe City a quick 24-0 lead a little more than halfway through the quarter.
The huge lead allowed Monroe City Head Coach David Kirby sent his team’s second-string and junior varsity players in the game early in the second quarter, giving them a lot of playing time.
"Those kids have worked hard all year in practice for us playing against our first team," Kirby said. "For them to get a lot of reps was great. We have more depth than what I thought."
The lead also gave Monroe City a chance to ease Nolan Pennewell, who returned from an injury, into action. Pennewell rushed for 75 yards and scored a touchdown.
"We were able to get Nolan acclimated to playing again, so that was positive," Kirby said.
But the real story of this game was the outmanned underdogs. MMA started the game with 13 players, who had endured an 0-9 season coming into District play.
While several teams elected to forfeit rather than face overwhelming odds, MMA Head Coach Mitchell Jenkins said that was not an option for his team.
"MHSAA (the Missouri High School Athletic Association) had seven or eight small schools bow out of Districts. We were not going to do that," Jenkins said. "We tell our kids that we never give up."
The Colonels, with a certain knowledge that they would go back to home to Mexico with an overwhelming loss to leave them 0-10, played hard during the entire game.
"Our kids are tough," Jenkin said. "They never give up."
But MMA was dealing with more than being overmatched by the Panthers.
The Colonels were in mourning, as a member of their team from the 2017 season died this week following a battle with cancer.
"Alex Ebersole died on Monday and we had to deal with that," coach said. "It is always tough when a child dies, and it’s tough on his teammates."
Matt Thibodeaux, a senior from Dallas, Texas, was one of two players who arrived late, after participating in Alex’s funeral earlier in the day in Poplar Bluff in southeast Missouri, some 270 miles from Monroe City. He arrived after game started, following a nearly five-hour drive.
"I am a little upset because tonight I showed up late," said Thibodeaux after the game as he choked back tears. "I know we were five or six hours away, but I would like to have been here…I just wish I had played a better game for Alex. In the end I am happy that I came out to play this final game with my team."
An emotional Kirby, realizing how tough the week had been for the Colonels, praised the attitude of the MMA players, as one-by-one they left the field, giving him a high-five or a fist bump.
"I walked over and told those kids…man I am starting to tear up…that’s the great thing about the game…you get to come and out and lay it on the line," Kirby said. "The kids from MMA came out and played their butts off tonight. There was no quit. My hat is off to them."
As he was leaving the field, Jenkins reflected on MMA’s winless season.
"You never accept defeat in life," Jenkins said. "As a coach, you decide what you want for your program. We’re not going to play for championships, obviously not this season. But a coach cannot evaluate a season until 10 or 15 years down the road when you see what kind of husbands and fathers these guys become."
Meanwhile, the road for Monroe City gets tougher as the Panthers play host Friday at 7 p.m. to Bowling Green in the second round of District play. Bowling Green defeated Clopton, 64-20, in the opening round of District play on Friday night.