By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes

McNary reached the second round of the state playoffs last season for the first time since 2013.

But the Celtics didn’t play their best in the biggest games, particularity in blowout losses to Sprague and West Salem.

“We’re working on our toughness and our tenacity, which people think of as physical things but they’re mental things as well,” said Jeff Auvinen, who enters his fourth season as McNary’s head coach.

The Celtics return eight players who started on at least one side of the ball last season, and due to a lack of depth, more players will be counted on to play both ways.

On the offensive line, seniors Joshua Schmeltzer and Wyatt Sherwood are back at guard and tackle. But Auvinen wants both guys on defense, where they were used sparingly last season.

“I wish they could play every play but we need them on offense,” Auvinen said. “I don’t know if we can because of our pace and it’s a tough game anyway. In the trenches like that is very demanding.”

One player that will definitely play offense and defense is Junior Walling, who led the Celtics with 991 yards rushing and nine touchdowns while also leading McNary’s defense at outside linebacker.

Walling will move inside this season to Mike linebacker.

“As far as our defense goes, he’s the overall leader and he’ll be that way this year and next year,” Auvinen said of Walling, a junior who has started on defense since he was a freshman. “Mike allows him to play the whole field. It allows him to run sideline to sideline. Junior has all the skills to play inside, outside. He’s got good strength and quickness and good instincts. I think he’s going to lead by example. He’s also become more of a vocal guy this year.”

Dyami Rios, a sophomore who dominated freshman ball last year, could follow a similar path as Walling.

“He works like a beast in the weight room and really has continued to keep his speed and quickness,” Auvinen said. “He’s going to take some people by surprise coming up from the freshman level and playing really well.”

While Rios will primarily play outside linebacker, McNary offensive coordinator Brad Emmert also has a plan for him at running back whenever he shows he’s ready.

“First year varsity guys we try to focus on one side of the ball,” Emmert said. “I have a plan for him but it’s going to depend on how he progresses. He’s going to be a stud, no doubt.”

Senior Robert Benson is another kid who will play both ways, getting carries in the backfield and also snaps at strong safety.

Senior Jacob Jackson, who led the Celtics in receiving with 562 yards and four touchdowns last season, will start at free safety.

“I’ve never had a kid who will catch the ball in traffic the way that he does,” Emmert said of Jackson.  “He has no worries about getting hit. He understands space. It’s stuff that you really can’t teach. I am jacked to see what he does this year. He’s in better physical condition than he’s ever been. He’s such a tough kid.”

Noah Bach, another senior, will move back from the defensive line to outside linebacker. On offense, he’ll also gets snaps at H-back.

For the first time in three seasons, McNary knows who its starting quarterback will be as junior Erik Barker returns after throwing for 2,252 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

“It’s just going to make us better,” Emmert said. “We were good last year offensively. In fact we were the best (statistically) since I’ve been here. But I expect us to take even another step by getting a little bit more elaborate with what we do offensively.”

Barker is physically more mature than last season.

“He throws a much more complete game,” Emmert said. “He can throw deep outs. He can throw deep posts. His deep ball has improved a ton and that’s one of the things that we’ve focused on.”

While Barker is clearly the starter, McNary also has a capable backup quarterback in senior Ryan Bamford.

“He would start at a lot of schools,” Emmert said. “We’re going to try to use Ryan some this season because I think he is a different style of kid. I think he’s a tough kid. It’s nice to have some stability there and be able to focus on some other positions.”

With the graduation of McNary’s second and third leading receivers, senior Griffin Oliveira is ready to step in.

“He has worked his tail off,” Emmert said of Oliveira. “Last year he was committed but not as committed as he is now. He’s worked so hard in the offseason. He dominated at the freshman level three years ago and he’s got his body in great physique.”

Devyn Schurr, another senior, has been more consistent catching the ball this summer, while Nigel Harris and Riley Flores will fill out the receiving corp.

Oliveira, Schurr and Harris could also play on defense in the secondary.

“We’re probably going to need to play more guys both ways but we’re also going to need some guys to step up and spell some of those kids so they can rest and play at their best,” Auvinen said.

Ian Koenig (OL/DL), Mike Ridgeway (OL/DL), Nico Sandoval (RB/CB), Noah Lelack (S), Layton Thurlow (RB) and Andrew Brown (H-back) are other players to watch.

“I like how these kids are running around, how enthusiastic they are,” Auvinen said. “They’re bringing a lot of energy. It’s a fun group of kids that are working hard. I just wish our numbers were a little better as far as depth goes.”