By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes

During every pre-game, halftime and post-game, McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen has challenged his team to respond to adversity and play the next play.

In the first round of the state playoffs, the message finally sunk in as the Celtics came from behind to defeat Grants Pass 22-20 on Friday, Nov. 3.

“We responded well tonight,” Auvinen said.

McNary trailed 20-10 late in the third quarter when quarterback Erik Barker connected with Junior Walling on a wheel route for a 30-yard gain to get the Celtics inside the Cavemen 20-yard line. Barker then found Jakoby Doke for a 12-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-16.

After both teams exchanged fumbles, Grants Pass, aided by a personal foul penalty, drove inside the McNary 15-yard line but the Celtics defense got a stop when the Cavemen decided on fourth-and-1 from the 14-yard line to go for the touchdown and throw an incomplete pass in the end zone.

McNary then drove 76 yards on 11 plays, including a 22-yard run by Walling on fourth-and-inches, to get to the Grants Pass 10-yard line. However, the Celtics weren’t able to add any points to the scoreboard, turning the ball over on downs with 5:40 left to play.

Forcing just its second three-and-out of the game, McNary’s defense got the ball back to its offense and Barker needed only one play to throw the winning touchdown, finding senior Kyle McCallister for a 48-yard score with 3:21 remaining.

“I just extended that route because I knew there was nothing,” McCallister said. “Jonny (Williams) had a great block on the outside for me to get to the end zone. I’ve only had one other touchdown this year. That felt amazing.”

Barker, who had to step up in the pocket waiting for someone to get open, said he didn’t actually see McCallister catch it.

“I got lit up,” Barker said. “When I got up, I was just overcome with relief. That was the greatest feeling of the whole night.”

Defensive back Alex McGrath then gave McNary fans even more relief, intercepting Grants Pass quarterback Blain Hobbs with only 1:30 left to play.

McGrath said the interception was a team effort.

“They run that hitch (route) a lot so I kind of knew it was coming and Brayden (Ebbs) did a good job setting the edge,” McGrath said. “Noah Bach tipped it up and it came right to me and I just tried to get up field. It was just insane and pretty magical.”

Walling, who finished with 175 yards on 30 carries, was then able to get a first down and run out the clock.

“That was a huge first down there,” Auvinen said. “We just needed one first down and the line, I can’t say enough about the job they did. They’re getting more belief in each other. The coaches believe in them. We think we can become that powerful, physical team that we want to be and it starts with the O-line and then our H’s are helping in the run game. Our backs are running really well. That was huge.”

McNary started the game strong, marching 80 yards on 14 plays to take a 7-0 lead with 7:43 remaining in the first quarter. Walling scored the touchdown on a 12-yard run.

After Grants Pass missed a 34-yard field goal, the Celtics drove inside the Cavemen 5-yard line but weren’t able to score, throwing an incomplete pass on fourth-and-goal from the 3.

Grants Pass answered with a 28-yard run directly up the gut of the Celtics defense to tie the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter.

Jacob Jackson then made a 26-yard field goal to give the lead back to McNary, 10-7.

The Celtics had opportunities to get more points before halftime but Williams dropped a wide open touchdown pass. After Jose Solorio made a diving catch to get McNary inside the 10-yard line, Barker threw three consecutive incomplete passes and Jackson then missed a 29-yard field goal wide right.

“We should have 24 if not 28 if not 31 in that first half if we make the plays,” Auvinen said. “Our discussion with the offense at halftime was let’s finish drives.”

Grants Pass took its first lead on a 2-yard touchdown run with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter. The Cavemen then completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to stretch their lead to 20-10 with 2:28 to go.

“I knew they were going to be very tough to beat,” Auvinen said. “I knew they were on our level. It’s whoever makes the most plays. We made plays when it counted, more than them tonight, only probably a couple, but that’s all it takes.”

McNary finished with 558 yards of offense.

Barker completed 23 of 38 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns. McCallister caught three passes for 80 yards. Williams had three receptions for 59 yards and Walling added three catches for 58 yards.

“I thought the kids prepared themselves really well,” Auvinen said. “I thought that the kids knew they belonged to be here and it wasn’t just a goal to make the playoffs. There have been years when I got that impression. This year, we were ready for a win at home.”

The playoff victory was the Celtics first since 2013.

“It’s a nice step for us,” Auvinen said. “We’re going to enjoy tonight. It’s been a while.”

McNary plays at No. 3 West Linn on Friday, Nov. 11. The defending state champions defeated West Albany 63-13 in the first round.