Culture shift leads to big turnaround for Monroe boys soccer

For many years, winning was not the norm for Monroe High School’s boys’ soccer program.

From 2012 through 2019, the Bearcats went 24-91-14 over eight seasons. They finished second to last or worse in league games seven times and never won more than six games in a single season.

But last year, the tide began to turn for Monroe.

The Bearcats finished 8-1-1 in a shortened season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their eight wins were the most in a season in over a decade, despite playing about half as many games as a normal season.

That success has continued this year as Monroe is in the best position to do something it hasn’t done in 20 years – qualify for the state tournament.

The Bearcats ended their regular season with a 4-0 shutout against Cascade on Tuesday. The win was the team’s 13th of 2022. And with 21 combined wins over the past two seasons, no high school boys’ football team in Snohomish County has won more games than Monroe since last spring.

The Bearcats (13-2-1, 12-2-1 Wesco 3A/2A) look to write the next chapter in their storybook turnaround by earning one of four state tournament spots in the Class 3A District 1 tournament, which begins Thursday. Monroe, third seeded, has earned a bye to Saturday’s quarterfinals and will host the Ferndale-Arlington winner.

Monroe’s Nolan Kelly kicks the ball during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“It’s amazing considering Monroe hasn’t gotten anywhere with football lately,” senior defenseman Joseph Gunter said of playing for a chance to qualify for the state tournament. “It’s kind of cool that maybe we can put Monroe on the map.”

The Bearcats have certainly made a name for themselves, at least locally, with their dominant performance on the pitch this spring. They have beaten opponents 54 to 15 while scoring three goals or more in 12 games and keeping opponents to a goal or fewer 14 times. Eleven of their wins came with at least two goals.

The past two seasons have been a quick turnaround for the program considering there was no season in 2020 after the Bearcats went just 3-11-2 the previous year.

Missing out on this 2020 season gave the team a sense of gratitude to play the game as high school sports returned from COVID cancellations in 2021, Monroe coach Korey Hope said.

“The pandemic is obviously a challenge for the whole world and very difficult times,” said Hope, who took over as the team’s head coach in 2019 after a season as an assistant, “but there are some positive implications for some people.” And one of them was certainly the gratitude with which these guys came out last year.

“I’m sure some other programs have experienced it too. Seeing something they look forward to so much, like the varsity football season being totally out of their control…it kept them coming out of the next year focused, ready and grateful to be there. I think that speaks volumes for their mentality.”

Monroe's Owen Skurdal chases the ball during a game against Arlington March 18 in Arlington.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal chases the ball during a game against Arlington March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

But it wasn’t just players who enjoyed playing and became good overnight. The recent winning streak was the culmination of a culture shift for the program.

Hope, a 2012 Monroe graduate, said he and his new assistants Tylor Codiga, Cameron Laird and Colten Linder were “essentially tearing down the foundation and building it up again.”

“Being competitive means making a choice, and historically there have been times when we just didn’t make that choice to be competitive,” Hope said. “When you make that decision, you have to put more effort into pursuing it than you have previously expended. You must back it up with your actions.”

“We knew it was going to be a big challenge,” added Hope. “Based on our results in season one, it’s obvious that it was as tough as expected. But it was absolutely necessary and definitely set the stage for what was to come after that.”

The Bearcats also needed an identity. Hope and his staff initially emphasized ball control.

“We want to control the game as much as possible and you do that by maintaining possession,” Hope said. “That’s something a lot of teams struggle with, you put pressure on them and they just kick long and there’s a 50-50 chance of whether they keep it or not. … We want more possession than the other team and we want to keep them going without the ball.”

There were a lot of bumps in the road in that first season. The Bearcats have been ruled out seven times and have been outplayed 35-15 in 14 league games. But there were also positive signals.

Monroe's Alexis Pacheco-Alonso (center) celebrates a goal with teammate Joshua Gunter (left) during a game March 18 in Arlington.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Alexis Pacheco-Alonso (center) celebrates a goal with teammate Joshua Gunter (left) during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Senior striker Josh Gunter, a freshman on the 2019 team, pointed to a late-season goalless tie against Jackson, who went on to finish third in the Class 4A that season.

“It just seemed like we started putting everything together at the end of the season,” said Josh Gunter.

The Monroe players could see their bond growing, something the team lacked before the season.

“When we went in we saw we had a lot of the right players but it just doesn’t seem like it fit,” said senior striker Caden Kassa. “We had good individual players, but it just didn’t work as a team. There wasn’t really any chemistry there.”

And while there was no 2020 season for the group to build on, many of its members continued to play together in Snohomish United, a club team.

“[Playing club together]helped a lot,” Joseph Gunter said. “…You can see that everyone kind of has the same idea and game plan. You can see that we are all one structure and not separate.”

The Bearcats returned to the field in 2021 and had a successful year, beating their opponents 54-11 in 10 games.

“That was our first real taste of success,” Hope said. “… That was crucial. Even though there was no postseason, it carried a lot of weight.”

Monroe's Owen Skurdal is tripped by Arlington's Emmanuel Escalante during a game March 18 in Arlington.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe’s Owen Skurdal is tripped by Arlington’s Emmanuel Escalante during a game March 18 in Arlington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Monroe graduated nine players from last season’s team but still had many key contributors this spring, including seniors Kassa, Josh Gunter, Joseph Gunter, Owen Skurdal, Aleksei Price and Alexis Pacheco-Alonso. The senior class also received a boost with newcomers Sam McAfee and Rafael Garnica.

“We’ve got a fantastic group of seniors this year,” Hope said. “It’s great because they were the freshmen in my freshman year as head coach. So it feels to us like this is our first real group that only we have gotten our hands on and had the opportunity to help grow.”

This group hopes the final chapter of their time at Monroe will include a trip to the state tournament, something the program hasn’t done since its inception.

“Since we took over the program, a state berth has really been our goal,” Hope said. “In that first year, it sounded absolutely absurd to say… We’re going to try to capitalize on the opportunity as best we can. We are very motivated.”

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