Football at Monroe is all about tradition – a tradition of winning.
The Redhawks have claimed three of the last four Rocky River 1A/2A conference titles, and coach Johnny Sowell, who is celebrating a decade of leadership as head coach at Monroe, is confident that this year his team will bring home another championship.
But it’s hard to get too excited about this year’s conference and playoff potential with the gray cloud hanging over the program from the end of the 2012 season.
Last season, the Redhawks got off to a brutal start, losing three out of the first four games to arguably weaker teams. Redhawk fans thought they were in for a long and painful year, but then something changed.
On Sept. 14, 2012, Monroe took down the Piedmont Panthers, 28-20, and the win provided enough spark to set the Redhawks on fire. Game after game, they crushed opponents, including a 64-0 win over North Stanly and 68-0 win the following week over West Stanly. Monroe quickly turned into the team to beat with one of the best running games in the state, averaging 230 rushing yards per game.
After dominating conference opponents with an undefeated 7-0 record and clinching the conference title, Monroe proceeded to topple Bishop McGuiness, East Surry and previous 1A state champion Mount Airy and were only one win away from the 1-AA state title game.
But then Swain County happened, a sore subject for returning senior running backs Tre’Shun Wynn and Julius Stradford.
Quayshawn Chambers, who is now a freshman quarterback at Duke, suffered an injury midway through the game, and the Redhawks blew a 21-0 lead, losing 28-21 and ending their hopes of a state title.
“It was tough,” said Sowell. “It was tough knowing that you had your starting quarterback that couldn’t finish the second half… We felt like we were one game away.
“This year, we’re going to be there. That’s our goal.”
Stradford and Wynn knew coming into their senior season they couldn’t let something like Swain County happen again. When this season began, it certainly appeared that Monroe would have no problem making another run at both the conference and state title.
The Redhawks were looking to capitalize on their strong running game, with the triple threat of Stradford, Wynn and junior Chase Byrum – three of the most talented running backs in the conference. Last season, Wynn rushed for 576 yards and put up 12 touchdowns; Stradford ran for 775 yards and had 13 touchdowns; and Byrum ran for 770 yards with 14 touchdowns, a testament to the quickness and agility of the Redhawk running backs.
So far, the Redhawks have capitalized on having the productive trio back, coming away from a stacked non-conference schedule with a 4-2 record, only falling to indomitable Weddington and defending North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association 3A state champion Charlotte Christian, who owns a 6-0 record.
“Our non-conference schedule has been brutal,” Sowell said. “I do it for two reasons. I do it because I feel like we can handle it, and it gets us ready for conference play and the playoffs. We have played some really tough teams and to come out of that 4-2 and beat a powerful 3A team…we feel pretty pleased right now.”
“We’ve played some big teams,” Wynn added. “So when we get to conference, we’re trying to take over. And when we get to the playoffs, we can’t fall short.”
But the road to potential conference domination hasn’t been easy.
Bringing back bitter memories from the Swain County game, the Redhawks have been littered with injuries, causing some of their best players to watch games from the sidelines.
Stradford, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound running back; averaged 127 rushing yards in the first four games of the season, but injured his ankle in the Sept. 13 matchup against Weddington, forcing him to sit out the next two games.
Wynn suffered a minor injury in the third quarter of the Anson game on Aug. 30, and hasn’t been able to play to his full potential since.
Despite a few bumps in the road, the Redhawks aren’t getting down on themselves, and they aren’t letting injuries get in the way of a potential championship.
In the Sept. 27 matchup against Sun Valley, even with Stradford on the sidelines, the Redhawks proved just how powerful they could be. Freshman quarterback Zephaniah Wall stepped in for his varsity debut and had six carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Byrum led the team’s rushing attack with 25 carries for 147 yards, and put up a touchdown, contributing to Monroe’s 32-3 win.
“Chase running the ball has picked up a lot of yards,” Stradford said. “You can’t really tell that I’m gone, because they’re doing such a good job. Keenan (Rivens) has been blocking for him. They’ve picked up the slack.”
For Sowell, Monroe’s domination of Sun Valley proved that his team could go all the way and has more than enough talent to make up for those missing.
“Going into the Sun Valley game, I think we really saw what our team is capable of,” he said of the Sept. 27 game. “We felt like we put all our faces together, with not having everybody, and were successful. That was more pleasing than having everybody there and just seeing what happens.”
With conference play starting Oct.11 against Central Academy of Technology and Arts (3-3), Wynn is expected to play and stay in for the remainder of the season, and Sowell assures that he’s back to his optimum health.
Stradford will sit out one more week to make sure his ankle has recuperated in time to take on Mount Pleasant on Oct. 18.
Sowell said that he looks to the two seniors to carry the Redhawks through conference play, so it’s pivotal that both Wynn and Stradford fully recover.
“Being injured a little bit, and having to sit back and watch, you see what the coaches are asking for and what a leader needs to do,” Sowell said. “In the last couple of weeks, Wynn has been that leader. The last couple of weeks have been big, and that’s because those guys have stepped up as leaders. They’ve got respect.”
Wynn, Stradford, Byrum and the veteran players from the 2012 season look to finish what they started and are thirsty for a championship. Combined with a powerful defense featuring eight returning starters, including all-conference players Dequavis Allen and Montez Rorie, the Redhawks aren’t lacking in the talent it will take to bring home a conference and state title.
“We can’t slack, we can’t make mistakes and we have to stay healthy,” Stratford said.
For Stradford and Sowell, the upcoming weeks will prove if Monroe truly does have the talent it takes to win at the conference level.
“They can be just like that (2009) team that went undefeated,” Sowell said. “You have to have talent. Any coach that says ‘it’s about me’ is lying. You have to have talent. Talent wise, this team is special.”