McNary’s Grant Gerstner flies after Grants Pass running back Ben Dean in the contest between the two teams. McNary came out on top 13-6 on a slippery, muddy field. (Photo courtesy of J&H Photo)

Of the Keizertimes

With less than a minute left in the game, Grants Pass High School varsity football team took over possession of the ball in its state tournament play-in game last Friday with the McNary High School Celtics.

Four plays later, at fourth-and-14, the Cavemen blew a snap and the ball was kicked around between its own players’ legs before Celt Mason Ross swept in, scooped up the ball and raised it over his head in celebration. The play ended a four-year playoff drought for McNary and sealed a 13-6 win.

“It felt pretty amazing,” Ross said.

The win earned the Celtics a berth in the state playoff tournament and they will travel to face the No. 1 team in the state, Lake Oswego High School, Friday, Nov. 9.

The Celtic game with the Cavemen started off on a worrying first drive by Grants Pass.

“They came out in an offense that we didn’t see on film, so our defense scrambled a little bit and struggled on that first drive,” said Isaac Parker, McNary head coach.

Stops by Brian Kostenko, Grant Taylor, Devon Dunagan and Frank Rios slowed the Cavemen, but the team marched from its own 35-yard line to McNary’s five-yard when Caveman Ben Dean punched through the first touchdown of the night on a rushing attack.

McNary lost its chance to answer on an interception and the Cavemen took over the ball again. The Cavemen offense lined up, but this time the Celtics were ready for them.

“Defensively we did good after that first drive, and we kind of shut them down,” said McNary’s Andrew Lawrence.

McNary’s next possession was a long one with quarterback Hayden Gosling handing off the ball to Brett Hildebrand five times and connecting with Perry Groves and Cody Bond for first downs. The effort got the Celts to the Caveman eight-yard line, but they couldn’t finish.

The teams traded punts on their subsequent drives. Grants Pass caught a lucky break on their last drive of the half when a punt slipped through Grant Taylor’s hands and bounced over him as he tried to fall on it. The Cavemen recovered it at McNary’s 21-yard line. Stops by Bruce Isabell, Groves and a sack by Daniel Brattain kept the Cavemen from the end zone just before the end of the half.

Isabell credited strong focus with helping the Celts escape another touchdown.

“A lot of it was us getting together and trying to get our mojo back and have our coaches telling us what they were seeing,” he said.

After the half, McNary’s opening drive sputtered on a high snap that the Cavemen recovered at the McNary 10-yard line. But the Celtic defense squelched the Caveman advance with Isabell and Adam Snegirev getting key tackles and Brattain providing pass coverage that broke up the Grants Pass’ air attack.

After punting away its next attempt, McNary got another shot when Cody Bond picked off a Caveman pass and ran it back to the Caveman 15-yard line. Two plays later, Hildebrand broke through on a five-yard run for the tying touchdown. The score remained knotted 6-6 when the point after kick flew wide of its mark.

The next 30 seconds of the game were the most wild as the Celtics forced a fumble and recovered the ball, the Cavemen picked off a pass intended for Dunagan and then Brattain recovered another Caveman fumble.

McNary pushed to the Caveman 17-yard line, but sputtered. Then the Celtic defense stepped up again to hold Grants Pass to their own territory with stops by Grant Gerstner, Bond, Zac Fegles, and Kostenko leading the effort.

Two drives later, Ross and Groves stopped Dean on a fourth-and-inches attempt to bring up the Celts penultimate drive with 4:13 left in the game.

Hildebrand charged to the end zone on six rushes, including one where he bounced off his own O-line and still managed a 10-yard gain. With a solid extra point kick by Gosling, McNary led 13-6.

The Cavemen’s next drive ended with the fumble recovery by Ross.

“We did a good job of recovering after the opening drive to hold them to six points for the rest of the game,” Cowan said.

Parker said controlling the line of scrimmage paid dividends while the team learned to cope with the forces that were out of their control and some that weren’t.

“The inconsistent snaps, poor passing game, and the holding calls were results of the muddy field, and I thought those were the main factors that slowed us down offensively. We probably had 80 yards rushing taken away with penalties and led to drives that resulted in a lot of possession losses,” he said.

Hildebrand finished the night with 162 yards on 26 rushes.