COLUMBIA, Mo. – Four interceptions and a steady ground attack helped Monroe City keep the football away from a dangerous Valle Catholic offense on Saturday.
The Panthers relished their chance for redemption after finishing runner-up last year, and captured the MSHSAA Class 1 state championship with a 12-7 victory at Faurot Field.
Senior Cole Pennewell rushed for 148 yards on 26 carries, and blocked a punt that preceded the go-ahead touchdown as Monroe City (15-0) capped an unbeaten season.
“We came into this game knowing we just didn’t come here to play a game, we came here to win this thing,” Pennewell said. “Last year, (the new experience of being here) kind of caught us off guard.”
Ryan Grein made eight receptions for 81 yards, and Brendan Meyer recorded 11 tackles to pace Valle Catholic (12-2), which was denied a 15th state title in program history.
An improved running attack that helped the Warriors dominate second halves in playoff victories over Thayer and Lockwood never found traction against the Panthers.
Sacks and penalties hindered their first three series of the third quarter while ahead 7-6, and Pennewell broke cleanly through the punt protection for a pivotal play that enabled Monroe City to begin its third separate drive in Valle territory at the 36.
Gage Bottoms picked up 19 yards on a well-executed screen, then covered the final 6 on a touchdown run behind his left tackle for the lead with 3:36 left in the period.
Valle Catholic began the fourth quarter by notching its two longest gains of the contest on back-to-back snaps – a 33-yard reception by Ryan Grein and 31-yard catch by Tyler Blum.
The Warriors moved backward on a false start penalty, but threatened to regain the lead as quarterback Mason Skaggs rolled right and fired a pass on fourth-and-goal from the 4.
Blum appeared to momentarily have full possession of the ball with both feet planted in the end zone, but an alert reaction by Panthers cornerback Nehemiah Batsell created doubt.
Batsell ripped the football away while falling to the turf, and was awarded the interception following a brief discussion between the two nearest officials.
“The ball goes to the corner. It’s kind of jumbled and I’m like ‘What’s going on?’ I see Nehemiah come up with it and they call a touchback,” Monroe City head coach David Kirby said. “I’m like, ‘Holy cow, we just got the ball back! Let’s go finish this thing off.”
Monroe City regained possession with 9:03 remaining in the game, and commenced a methodical 16-play drive that flipped field position and consumed more than 7 ½ minutes.
Valle Catholic stopped a fourth-down run at its 8 in desperation, but not before Zach Osborn moved the chains with a huge 19-yard sweep on second-and 18 for the Panthers.
Skaggs hoped to engineer a magical comeback after taking over with 1:35 on the clock, but a reaching pick by Dawson Shively on a deep route sealed the outcome.
“My team really put me in that position,” said Shively, who was forced to miss last year’s title game due to injury. “And (because of them) I was able to go and make a play and use the ability God has given me and help us win. I am just so overwhelmed with happiness right now.”
Monroe City nearly doubled its opposition in total time of possession, and posted a 247-32 advantage in rushing yardage while limiting itself to only two penalties.
“That’s just how these kids are. You put a challenge in front of them, and they accept it,” Kirby said. “We knew that the keys to being successful tonight we’re going to be eliminating mistakes and turnovers. That’s what the kids did. They put a complete game together.”
Batsell equaled Shively with two interceptions in the game, and nabbed a throw in double coverage on the initial Valle Catholic play from scrimmage.
The Warriors thwarted a pair of threats in the first quarter when senior defensive end Owen Schweigert sacked quarterback Blake Hays twice on fourth down.
“It was all about first down (to) get them into a second-and-10 situation that limits what they do,” Valle Catholic head coach Judd Naeger said. “I thought the execution of our defense was outstanding today. We missed a few tackles here and there, but were in the right spot most of the time. We also did a good job against their passing game, which has been deceptively good all season.”
Carter Roth had team-high 36 rushing yards while making four receptions for the Warriors. His nifty 23-yard touchdown scamper along with left sideline created a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
But running room was otherwise scarce once Monroe City began to control the trenches, and Shively sparked the Panthers with his first interception plus a 49-yard return.
Pennewell powered through the middle on the ensuing play for a 35-yard touchdown. Valle withstood the two-point conversion try to maintain a 7-6 edge with 9:49 remaining before halftime.
“Hats off to Monroe City and their kids for playing an outstanding ball game,” Naeger said. “They did a great job on the defensive side of the ball and controlled the clock.
“They dropped some guys into coverage, and we thought they would play a little more man. We should have stuck with some more of our run/pass option stuff so we could have gotten a good play regardless of what they did, but I didn’t do a great job with that.”
Skaggs landed a punt at the Monroe City 3 later in the second quarter, but the Panthers melted more than seven minutes on 18 plays following a successful fourth-and-1 gamble from their own 23.
Two teams that combined to average 89 points per game totaled just 19 going head to head.
Skaggs was 16-of-25 passing for 175 yards – ending his senior season with 2,905 yards in 12 games – but four turnovers and an intentional grounding penalty proved costly.
Following the trophy presentations, both teams gathered near midfield for a prayer following the hard-fought battle.
“The kids worked hard every day, and that’s how we define success,” Naeger said. “Do the kids work hard and get to know each other better? Are we as a staff able to build relationships that are going to last a lifetime? I think the answer (to those questions) is ‘Yes’ all the way across the board.”
Dalton Kertz had eight stops and Kyle Roth added a sack for the Warriors. Meyer ended his final varsity season at inside linebacker with 134 tackles.
Bottoms had 75 yards on 11 carries in the victory. Hays completed 2-of-6 passes for 23 yards.