MONROE CITY, Mo. – The nucleus of players that guided the Monroe City football team to back-to-back state title game berths are gone.
That leaves the new generation of players to lead the Panthers.
"I think it excites all of us," senior lineman Danny Dennison said. "It’s a clean slate. We want to do a lot of things with that."
Monroe City has just seven seniors on roster, and only fullback Keenan Batsell and linebacker Max Hays were the only ones to see the field when the Panthers won the Class 1 state title in 2017. Those seniors want to add to the rich history of the program, especially after a 10-2 campaign last year that ended with a loss in the Class 2 district title game to Clark County.
They can do that knowing there’s no pressure on them to play like the teams before them.
"They don’t have to," Monroe City coach David Kirby said. "We really do talk about how yesterday is gone, and we have to focus on their group and not the past. That allows them to just relax and enjoy the moment. They don’t have to (Zach Osborn) or (Jon Saxbury). They just get to be them."
However, they can still take lessons from those teams. They went through the same practices with those players that won a state title and saw what it took to make deep postseason runs.
The same blueprint will be used this season.
"That did leave us with a plan on how to get ready," Batsell said. "We learned from some really great players. It’s humbling to know now it’s our turn to do that."
Monroe City has the pieces there to make it happen.
Batsell returns for his second full season as a starter in the backfield after he churned 1,486 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 198 carries last year as Monroe City averaged 33 points per game. He split those carries with Osborn, who also ran for more than 1,000 yards, but now those carries will likely be shared among other backs like senior Antwuan Battle and junior Aaron Plumb. Those two combined for just 409 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries.
Sophomore Kyle Hays will fill in the vacancy left at quarterback that was left open by his older brother Blake Hays, who was under center the last three years for Monroe City.
Monroe City’s ability to run the ball successfully came from controlling the line, and the Panthers return Dennison, Hays, Kannon O’Bryan-Minor and Connor Pfaff that all have experience in the trenches.
Quintin Ranabarger also returns to the line after playing in just two games last fall.
"The guys that we did have start last year will lead by example this year," Dennison said. "I think the other guys will rally behind them, and I think that’ll lead to good things."
It was the same way on defense as Monroe City allowed just 12.4 points per game last season and had five shutouts.
Replicating that level of play is a challenge this group of Panthers want.
"Even the years we were playing in a state championship, we had the same practice the week of the state title game as we did in August," Kirby said. "That level of consistency lets them understand the drills we do and want to do them at a high level. That helps quite a bit, and it tries to breed success for the long haul."