By Dave Morrison
James Monroe’s Monroe Mohler could hardly believe what he was hearing.
Assistant coach Ben Thornton, a legendary ruuning back in the annals of Maverick football, was telling the rising senior QB to get his receivers together and be prepared. An air raid was coming.
As the fall of 2019 was descending on picturesque Monroe County, the bombs were indeed dropping.
“It was after my junior season and coach Thornton was telling me to get the receivers together and start working on getting chemistry down because we were going to passing the ball,” Mohler recalled. “I was a little bit surprised because when you think of James Monroe you think ground and pound football.”
The storied history of James Monroe football has been written with outstanding seasons provided by the likes of running backs such as Thornton, runner-up forthe coveted Kennedy Award in 1999 and Mohler’s brother Grant, an all-state running back at the school.
Monroe Mohler and his receivers – guys like Xander Castillo, Garrett Huffman, Brandon Carter, Cam Thomas and Peyton Whitt – did get together.
“We probably got together three times a week, ran patterns, threw the ball,” Mohler. “I think it helped us a lot, just getting that chemistry with one another.”
Did it ever.
Mohler and Castillo had record-setting seasons at the school.
Mohler completed 103 of 188 passes for 2,103 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Castillo caught 44 passes for 1,255 yards and he had 18 touchdown receptions.
As a result both were selected to the annual North-South All-Star Classic in South Charleston June 23. Kickoff is slated for Noon.
“It’s an honor to be selected to play in this game,” Mohler said. “I’ve been going to this game since I was a freshman, when I went down and watched (former James Monroe all-state linebacker) Tripp Shiflett play, and then the next year when my brother Grant played. They told me what a great time they had, meeting all the players from around the state.”
And with Castillo on the roster, he has the familiar face of a long-time friend.
And it was that friendship, Mohler said, that helped cement the record-setting season the Mavericks dynamic duo enjoyed.
“We have been friends for such a long time, and we’ve been teammates probably since second or third grade,” Mohler said.
Mohler said he and Castillo, and the team overall, knew what they had early on as the numbers started to add up.
Mohler’s tour de force came against nearby Princeton in Week 8, when he ran for 191 yards and three scores and completed 12 of 17 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown and caught a 64-yard pass for a touchdown. He was only area player in 2019 to score a touchdown on a run and reception and also throw for a score in the same game.
He had huge passing games against PikeView (9 of 16 for 333 and five touchdowns), Wyoming East (15 of 24 for 364 yards and three touchdowns) and Westside 18 of 27 for 377 and four touchdowns).
The two games versus PikeView and Wyoming East, the third and fourth games of the year, solidified the team’s belief that the passing game was going to pay dividends.
“Especially the game against Wyoming East,” Mohler said. “Even thought it was a (38-35) loss, Wyoming East was a playoff team. At the time I think they were a Top 5 team. It really gave us confidence that we could play with anyone.”
And Castillo was also starting to have an all-state season during that stretch, with five catches for 223 yards (a whopping 44.6 yards per catch) and four touchdowns against PikeView, six catches for 222 yards (37.0 yards per catch) and three touchdowns against Wyoming East. He also had 10 catches for 270 yards and four touchdowns against Westside. For the season Castillo averaged 28.5 yards per catch and 125.5 yards per game.
“We knew early on because teams were having a hard time trying to defend Xander because he is so quick,” Mohler said. “He has a knack for getting open and once he catches the football, he makes thing happen.”
One such pass came against Covington, Va., and provided the winning score in a 21-14 Mavericks victory.
It was also Mohler’s favorite pass, though he admits that the pass wasn’t the main part of the play.
“It was just a simple screen pass,” Mohler said. “Once he caught the ball he just made a great run. It was really something to watch. Nad coming when it did and giving us the win made it a big one for us.”
Mohler’s versatility was on display all season, so much so that he caught that 64-yard touchdown pass against Princeton and he had a punt return for a score
It was a punt return against Point Pleasant that was the highlight run of his career.
“I’m still not sure how I made it out of there,” he said of the mass of humanity that permeates a special teams play. “I broke a tackle, got spun around and then I remember seeing green so I just took off.”
The Mavericks didn’t necessarily abandon the run. Mohler, a versatile player who has lined up as a running back and a receiver during his career at James Monroe, had 943 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
For all the offensive numbers, Mohler was known more, in terms of state-wide acclaim, for his work on defense.
The 5-foot-9, 170-pound versatile athlete was named a second-team all-state defensive back the last two seasons after being a firs-team all-stater as a sophomore.
Mohler led the area and was among the state leaders in interceptions as a sophomore with eight interceptions.
“That was probably the highlight of my career, making the (first-team) all-state team as a sophomore after the season we had,” Mohler said.
James Monroe went 8-3, won seven-straight games and made the Class AA playoff field before falling to WInfield in the opening round, 29-0.
Mohler said he was looking forward to playing wherever South coach Ray Lee (Greenbrier East) wants him to play, be it quarterback, running back, receiver or on defense or special teams. Lee, whose team annually opens against James Monroe, is aware of Mohler’s versatility.
The South does have three other quarterbacks on the roster – Chase Berry from Chapmanville, Gunner Harman from Wayne and Ethan Varney from Tug Valley.
“I think it would be really great to have the opportunity to throw to Xander again, or throw to any of the outstanding receivers on the team,” Mohler said. “But really I’ll play anywhere coach Lee wants me to play. I’m looking forward to going down there and meeting all these great players from around the state I’ve been reading and hearing about over the last few years. I hope we get to play the game.”
North-South Game Director Bob Mullett said the game officials will monitor the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and will give updates on the status of the game.
Mohler is also a baseball player at James Monroe. In March a different raid arrived in the country in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic, shutting down every day life, including schools and sports.
“It’s heartbreaking really,” Mohler said. “It’s our senior year and everything just comes to a stop. I’ve tried to put it in perspective and stay in shape and be positive that maybe we can get in some of our season.”