By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes

McNary has spent the last four years under head coach Jeff Auvinen focused on getting better, not just every season or even every game, but every play.

That work paid off last Friday with the football program’s first league championship since 2005.

The Celtics defeated South Salem 40-33 to clinch the Mountain Valley Conference title.

McNary made no more progress within a single season than this one. After starting 0-5, the Celtics won all four of their league games.

“We stayed the course and got better,” Auvinen said. “That’s all you can do is play the next play.”

McNary appeared like it would roll over the Saxons when the Celtics led 25-6 and recovered an on-side kick with 5:40 remaining in the first half.

But South Salem took advantage of a McNary fumble and turnover on downs to score 14 straight points on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Elijah Enomoto-Haole to Diego Fulmaono and then a 10-yard touchdown run by Enomoto-Haole with 27 seconds remaining to get within 25-20 at halftime.

South Salem sophomore Gabe Johnson then returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown to give the Saxons a 26-25 lead with 6:05 remaining in the third quarter.

“I think we might have came in a little over confident,” McNary senior lineman Wyatt Sherwood said. “We tried to keep that out of us this week. It’s going to happen. When they took the lead, I think we realized that we needed to step up and finish this.”

Junior Walling put McNary back up by two touchdowns with a 13-yard run at the end of the third quarter and a 1-yard run with 7:49 remaining in the fourth.

“We just lost our toughness,” said Walling, who finished with 210 yards, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion on offense to go along with nine tackles and two sacks on defense. “We battled that in the beginning of the year and we knew we could bounce back from it.”

Quarterback Erik Barker ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns and connected with Noah Bach, who broke a tackle and ran down the McNary sideline for a 52-yard score.

“We knew we were the better team and if we just did our jobs and didn’t make stupid plays, we’d come back and win the game,” Barker said. “Our O-line was making big holes all day and Junior was running great and he blocked for me when I would run it.”

McNary linebacker Dyami Rios had 12 tackles and two sacks.

The Celtics (4-5) finished No. 22 in the final OSAA power rankings and will travel to No. 11 Lakeridge (6-3) on Friday, Nov. 2 for the first round of the state playoffs.