John Stroebel and another McNary lineman help open a path for running back Brett Hildebrand during the Grants Pass game earlier this season. (Courtesy J&H Photo)

Of the Keizertimes

The McNary High School varsity football team may not have finished the year with the record they hoped for, but the gains they made this season will likely become the foundation for future success.

After three years of not winning more than three games, the team had to reset itself in more ways than one.

“The challenge was getting away from our losing seasons. We had to learn how to practice and learn to compete and then learn how to win,” said Kaleb Simpson, a senior.

“Changing a football team’s identity is always a tough thing and being able to say that we were part of making that change to a smash mouth team instead of passing first is pretty cool,” said Celt Kelly Cowan, a senior.

From the outset, Parker intended to instill a run-first offense, but making such changes takes time and more than a little buy-in from players.

“The biggest struggle early in the season was getting the players to practice hard on every rep,” Parker said. “Our practice tempo was much slower than the game and that made it harder for us to play well. There was a noticeable improvement in how we played the game when the tempo at practice improved.”

“We had to do a lot of running and get more conditioned, then we had learn to block better and then pick up linebackers as we’re run-blocking,” added Celt Bruce Isabell.

After struggling in a 47-7 loss in their Central Valley Conference opener, Parker went back to basics the following week of practice. They did no team reps and focused instead on fundamentals to imbue players with the tools to play better as a team.

By the following Friday, the Celts pulled out a 26-19 win over North Salem High School and running back Brett Hildebrand rolled up 220 offensive yards in his wake as the new offensive look began to gel.

“I knew that we were eventually going to get to that point, but putting in the new offense was really complicated. I was having trouble figuring out where I was supposed to go and the linemen were having trouble figuring out where they were supposed to go, but we finally started working together against North,” Hildebrand said.

Flipping the switch wasn’t easy, but both coaches and veteran players were impressed with young talent finding ways to fill out new roles.

“Our young guys just really stepped up and we came together as a team and that chemistry showed on the field,” Simpson said.

Coupling new talent with senior talent and some already-veteran juniors, the team made better progress than their preseason games gave reason to believe was possible.

“Perry Groves was playing great football all year long, but mid-year he started to become a more vocal leader. Perry is a man of stature that demands respect and attention, and his work ethic is admirable and makes his leadership believable. On the offensive side of the football, Bruce started to play more O-line, and he was a catalyst for us up front. His energy, competitiveness, and hard work started to push our tempo at practice,” Parker said.

Even when the team wasn’t having the success in the scoring, they found ways to celebrate little victories and the attitude caught fire throughout the ranks.

“The kids adopted the quote, ‘Don’t count the time, make the time count’ at practice, and they started to compete and push themselves at practice every rep,” Parker said.

The result was a change that was present even after the Celts took last week’s loss in the first round of the playoffs to Lake Oswego High School.

“We came from a program that everyone looked down on, and Coach Parker and all the coaches helped us believe that we can be the bigger team when we want to be. Even when we hung our heads down, Coach Parker never gave up on us and got us to where we are today,” said Matt Piskorowski.

It was a bittersweet night for the team, but many of the graduating seniors are excited about the future of the program.

“I’d like to see them continue because that’s the path to success in high school football. The run game opens up opportunities in the passing game and that’s the way things need to be done. When I come back in a few years, I’d like to see them continue to be doing this,” Cowan said.