BETHLEHEM - Minutes before Friday's kickoff, Monroe Area football coach Matt Fligg called host Apalachee the "best team in our region, without question."
The Wildcats began proving that with a 31-7 Region 8-AAAA victory over the Purple Hurricanes before an enthusiastic opening-night crowd. The victory was Apalachee's fourth straight over Monroe and a decisive step toward a fourth-consecutive state playoff appearance.
As Apalachee preps for Week 2 at region foe Cedar Shoals, Wildcats coach Shane Davis said a key continues to be strong leadership from his boat load of seniors.
"Those guys know what it's all about and they know what the expectations are," he said. "We've got a lot of third-year starters who know what they have to do to be competitive."
After leading 3-0 and falling behind 7-3, the Wildcats (1-0, 1-0) scored four unanswered touchdowns to keep the Hurricanes (0-1, 0-1) winless since their final game of 2007.
Jon Lee, Apalachee's leading rusher with 1,051 yards and nine touchdowns last season, ran for 57 yards and a TD that put the Wildcats up 10-7 by halftime. John Ansley, who finished with a team-high 91 ground yards, had TD runs of 25 and 5 yards, and Reggie Battle chipped in a 7-yard score.
Apalachee got a key break on fourth-and-1 at Monroe's 13-yard line with 1:08 left in the first half, as the Hurricanes jumped offsides and gave the Wildcats a first down eight yards out. Lee took the ensuing snap over the right side for a lead Apalachee never would relinquish.
Ahead 17-7 on Ansley's first score early in the third quarter, the Wildcats turned two more breaks into TDs. Four plays after Jeff Haney's interception with 7:46 left in the period, Battle stretched Apalachee's advantage to 24-7. Then, when Guy Hunt lined up for his second 40-yard field goal, holder Zack Gentry turned an off-target snap into an 18-yard run around right end to Monroe's 5, from where Ansley scored the night's final TD.
Despite struggling at times, Davis believes his team is ready to play with anyone, particularly with eight returners on both offense and defense. Though the Wildcats allowed Monroe quarterback Demontavious Smith a 53-yard TD run midway through the second quarter, they held the Hurricanes to only five plays of more than 10 yards.
"We're athletic enough with enough guys back to have a good chance against anybody," Davis said.