By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes

McNary’s girls soccer team will see its most difficult schedule in years, maybe ever.

But with 18 returning varsity players, including 15 of them upperclassmen, head coach A.J. Nash believes he’s got the talent to face those challenges.

“We’ve never had that (experience),” Nash said. “We’ve got high expectations. We’ve got an ability to compete with any team in the state.”

Instead of just one 6A team on its non-league schedule, which the Lady Celts have seen the past two seasons, McNary will face seven, all playoff teams that advanced to at least the second round of the 6A state tournament last season.

Lincoln, who the Lady Celts will travel to on Sept. 18, reached the semifinals.

“The level of competition for the non-league has went through the roof,” Nash said.

McNary earned the tougher schedule by qualifying for the state playoffs the past two seasons.

“We’ve been fighting to get a more difficult 6A schedule the last four of five years,” Nash said. “You have to have a proven track record, which isn’t one year of success, it’s multiple years’ success. It’s hard to get those teams to come play you. It’s an example of what we’ve earned. That is not a gift or a request. It has to be earned.”

Conference play will also be tougher.

Gone are McMinnville, McKay and North Salem, three of the four bottom teams in the Greater Valley Conference last season.

In is former 5A powerhouse Summit, which last year won its sixth state title since 2010 and Bend, which reached the 5A state quarterfinals last season.

Mountain View is only one of two opponents on McNary’s schedule that didn’t play in the postseason last year.

“There’s a lot on the line every game,” Nash said. “One of the big differences we’re going to see this year is often in that first six games we can have a larger rotation of players to get them looks on the field. Every single game this year is meaningful. We don’t have any easy wins on the schedule.”

Led by Sydney Snapp, a four-year starter at goal keeper and Sam Alfano, a three-year starter, the strength of McNary’s team should be its defense.

“Our defense, I feel solid with,” Nash said. “I know we’re going to compete in every game because of our defense. We’re bringing back a much more tenured defense group that has both playoff experience and age under their belt now.”

While last season’s leading goal scorer, Abbie Hawley returns, the Lady Celts are less proven in the attack.

Natalia Gonzalez and Izzy Haselip, both seniors, enter the year healthy after missing large parts of last season with injuries.

“I need to be the person to also push my teammates to think they can score as well, not just me,” Hawley said.

Seniors Gina Munguia and Katy Wyatt will lead the midfield.

For the first time in three years, no freshmen made the varsity team.

“It’s a sign of a good program,” Nash said. “We don’t have any rules against it. We want freshmen to earn it but with 15 returning upperclassmen there’s not a whole lot of room.”

That experience has already shown in tryouts when Nash said the team was in midseason form.

“Our starting point, we feel like is ahead of any year we’ve had,” he said.

McNary opened the season on Tuesday, Aug. 28 with a 2-1 win at South Medford.

Haselip scored both goals with assists from Munguia and Wyatt.