Members of the Keizer Celts, a team comprised of players from the city’s two middle schools, work on blocking during practices last week. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Some things naturally go better together, but had someone asked Matthew Stephens if Claggett Creek and Whiteaker middle school football was one of them, he would have balked.

“Last year, I didn’t think I liked Claggett, but now that we’ve joined forces they’ve been really nice and we’ve been working really well together. I hope it continues,” Matthew said.

A month ago, Whiteaker students were supposed to sign up for football, but the turnout was weaker than expected.

“The kids are supposed to have signed up by the second day of school and there was fewer than 10 kids signed up between the heavy and lightweight teams,” said Rich Mann, Whiteaker’s heavyweight coach.

The success of Pop Warner football siphoned off many who had an interest in playing leaving the school with fewer players than it would take to field a team.

Fortunately, Mann remembered a season when students from Waldo and Stephens middle schools joined forces to create a unified team. He made some calls to the district and principals to find out whether it could happen again.

On the other side of town, Claggett’s lightweight coach Aaron Carr was making plans for defeating Whiteaker in his team’s first game of the season.

“Then I got this call asking if we could merge the two teams. The first couple of days were a little rough, but by the third day we were a team,” Carr said.

“It’s been nice because they started introducing themselves and each other to the other guys on the team. The benefit is that these kids are going to be together next year at McNary [High School] and they are getting a chance to build those bonds this year,” said Jamie Peters, a heavyweight coach.

With an assist from McNary’s football program, which loaned the unified team old varsity jerseys, Claggett and Whiteaker have become the Keizer Celts.

“It’s added some talent like a receiver and some offensive linemen,” said lightweight quarterback Tyler Ellert.

In the teams’ first games with Walker Middle School, the lightweight Celts doled out a whupping in a 38-7 victory.

“We were able to see what our strengths and weaknesses were and kind of make all of it better,” said receiver Carlos Garcia.

The heavyweights picked up a 22-20 win over Walker.

“We stayed ahead and managed to hold them off as they caught up,” said center Sam Farr. “It’s been really fun because the combination has made us a lot better. A lot of people thought we’d wouldn’t be able to do it, but we came out and won.”

Aside from the logistical challenges of travel across town for practices, the unified team has created a win-win for the middle schools’ gridders.

Whiteaker ended up with about 25 players total on the two teams while Claggett boasts a healthier contingent. In some ways, the low turnout created additional opportunities for players who might not have tried out otherwise, Mann said.

“The parents have been very supportive and everyone is getting to play. That’s the important thing,” Mann said.