Top 10 sports stories of 2021

Despite their being no athletic events for the first two months of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Keizer featured a litany of notable sports stories this year.

Here were the top 10 sports stories featured in the Keizertimes in 2021. 

McNary wins first game in return to the field

In their first game since November 2019, the McNary defense set the tone from kickoff until the last play.

Facing fourth-and-goal from the McNary 10-yard line with four seconds left on the clock and trailing by five, West Albany quarterback Michael Cale tried a fade to his favorite target, Caden Zamora, in the corner of the end zone for the win. But McNary’s Sage Allen broke up the pass as time expired, giving the Celtics the 19-14 victory on Friday, March 5.

During a typical McNary home game, there would be a celebration with the student section on the field and players would stay behind for nearly an hour after the horn sounded, greeting friends and family members and taking photos. But due to COVID-19 protocols, the Flesher Field grandstands were empty. There was no band, there was no cheering after a big play, only silence.

However, after the game was over, the players weren’t dwelling on what had been taken away from them during this tumultuous year, they were instead, thankful for the simple joy of playing football once again. 

“It feels amazing to be out here again. Right before kickoff I was like Man, I am really about to play football again,’ and I am so glad it turned out the way it did,” McNary linebacker Dyami Rios said. 

“It feels so good to be back. It’s a blessing that we are able to be out here,” Celtics running back Dakota Dunagan added.

McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen, who has been coaching football at McNary for nearly three decades and has been a part of two state championship teams (1997, 2001), claimed that this might be one of the best feelings he has ever experienced after a game.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and no matter what level it’s at, it’s always been awesome. But this might be the best I have ever felt,” Auvinen said.

Trailing 14-13 late in the fourth quarter, McNary quarterback Jack McCarty connected with Braiden Copeland for a 14-yard touchdown to give the Celtics the 19-14 lead with 4:46 remaining. 

With 16 seconds left in the game, West Albany was able to get inside the McNary 10-yard line. But for the third time in the game, the Celtics defense got a red zone stop as Cale threw four straight incompletions, sealing the Celtics win. 

It was the least amount of points given up by McNary since the 2017 season.

“It takes a special group of guys to come together when it’s tough, and the red zone is a tough zone where everything shrinks. It’s one of those areas where the tough guy wins. Luckily, we had a lot of tough guys,” Auvinen said.

Volcanoes create Mavericks Independent Baseball League

After spending 23 years as an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, a new chapter in Salem-Keizer Volcanoes baseball arrived in the spring. 

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, the organization announced that they were creating a new, four-team independent league called the The Mavericks Independent Baseball League. The league would be facilitated by the Volcanoes withall games being played at Volcanoes Stadium.

“We’re excited about the new year and we’re very hopeful about the setup we have here. We are happy to know that we’re going to be able to provide high-quality baseball this year and beyond,” Volcanoes CEO Mickey Walker said. “We control our own destiny now, and that’s something that is a really big deal for us. We’re going to be self-sustainable, we don’t need outside organizations to play a part. We can do this ourselves.”

The Mavericks League features the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, Portland Mavericks, Salem Senators and Campesinos de Salem-Keizer. All four teams splayed under the Volcanoes umbrella. The league featured top-level undrafted and released players, as well as high-level collegiate players and former Volcanoes players.

The Mavericks and Senators have both played a significant role in professional baseball in the state of Oregon. The Mavericks were the first independent team to play in the Northwest League in the 1970s — the Volcanoes recently bought the rights to the Mavericks — while the Senators, before eventually becoming the Salem Dodgers, began playing minor league baseball in 1940.

After months of preparation, the Mavericks League kicked off its inaugural season in front of over 1,000 fans at Volcanoes Stadium on Thursday, May 13.

The Opening Day game saw the Mavericks, in their first contest in over four decades, defeat the Volcanoes by a score of 4-2.

“I want the boys to recognize after everything that has gone on is that playing baseball is truly a privilege,” Mavericks manager Alan Embree said. “This is special and it’s something I want to be a part of.”

The Campesinos ended the year with the best regular season record, and went on the first Mavericks League championship on Saturday, Sept. 4.

McNary girls’ soccer team earns playoff spot

Before the season began, the main goal of the McNary girls’ soccer team was to qualify for the postseason, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 2017.

On Wednesday, Oct. 20, the Celtics made that goal a reality in their final home game of the year.

With the score tied 1-1 in the 62nd minute, junior forward Sydnee Alfano scored the go-ahead goal off the pass from Maya Alston to give the Celtics the 2-1 victory against Mountain View.

“We needed to remind ourselves of who we are and prove that we belong in the playoffs,” McNary head coach Lauren Brouse said. “It was a huge win. It’s huge for the players and the program in general.”

After McNary couldn’t convert on their first six shots-on-goal in the opening 20 minutes, Mountain View was able to take advantage of a defensive lapse by the Celtics when forward Alicia Welker moved the ball past the back line to get an uncontested shot by McNary goalkeeper Hannah Ferguson, putting the Cougars up 1-0.

However, in the opening minute of the second half, McNary capitalized on a golden opportunity.

After a McNary throw-in deep in Mountain View territory, Celtics forward Yasheth Arciniega Rivera was fouled in the box trying to corral the pass, leading to a penalty kick.

McNary captain Isabelle Gatchet was selected to take the penalty kick, and in the final home game of her career, the senior defender buried a ball in the back of the net past the keeper to tie the game at 1-1.

Earlier in the game, Alfano missed out on a number of opportunities to put the Celtics on the board. But when she got another great look at a goal in the 62nd minute, she wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip away.

Alston received a perfect through ball from Peyton Olafson while sprinting up the sideline, then crossed the ball over to Alfano, who played it off the short hop and fired a missile into the top of the goal for the score, giving the Celtics their first lead.

“Sydnee was due. She was bound to get one,” Brouse said. “It was such a beautiful goal.”

Meithof signs to play at Westmont

McNary’s Nate Meithof had been one of the top prep players in the state for the last two years, which is why he was able to take his skills to the next level.

In May, the shooting guard signed his letter of intent to play college basketball for Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“I am really excited to be able to get the opportunity to show what I can do,” Meithof said. “I am going to work as hard as I can. It is going to be fun.”

As a junior, Meithof averaged over 23 points and nine rebounds per game and was named the Mountain Valley Conference co-Player of the Year. In the COVID-19 shortened season, Meithof averaged 25 points per contest.

“I think it’s important that Nate goes to a place where he can unpack his bags for the next four years of his life. It’s a great fit basketball wise. It’s a level where he will have a ton of success and he will play for a very good coaching staff,” McNary head coach Ryan Kirch said. “Academics are incredibly high there and he will be set for his life from that standpoint.”

Meithof’s basketball accolades speak for themselves, but what he is most proud of is being the first person in his biological family to have the opportunity to attend college.

“It really feels like my first major accomplishment,” Meithof said.

Meithof was one of the most sought after juniors in the area in the winter of 2020. But when the pandemic hit, his recruiting slowed down significantly. However, there was one coach in particular that never took his eyes off Meithof.

After being an assistant at the school for two years, Keizer-native Landon Boucher took over the Westmont basketball program in the spring of 2020. The first player that he recruited was Meithof.

“My first phone call was to Kirch. I knew Nate was a big-time player and I knew that he could be a high-level player for us,” Boucher said.

Nearly a year later, Meithof took his official visit to Westmont with his grandpa.

“It was a fun trip. I felt like I was stepping into a very welcoming environment,” Meithof said. “A couple players showed me around the campus, which was a lot bigger than I realized.”

During the visit, Meithof got the opportunity to play one-on-one with some of the Westmont upperclassmen, which was when Boucher realized the type of potential Meithof has.

“I only was able to see what he could do against high schoolers. But when I saw him play against some of our seniors, we all found out how gifted he is both offensively and defensively,” Boucher said. “I knew he was good, I just didn’t realize how good he was.”

One week after the visit, Meithof committed to play at Westmont. With Boucher, and assistant coach Josh Erickson being from Keizer, it was clear that the local ties played a role in Meithof’s decision — Erickson graduated from McNary in 2003 and was a part of the basketball team that took fourth place in the ’03 state tournament.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that me and Josh are both Keizer guys. All three of us went to the same schools when we were growing up. I just feel like it was meant to be,” Boucher said. “Nate is an elite shot-maker and the way he is able to create for himself is unbelievable. He is going to have an instant impact and be a part of a really good team. We are thrilled to have him.”

Celts upset Grant to advance to second round

Whether it was injuries, heartbreaking losses, or needing players to change positions, the McNary volleyball squad had their fair share of trials during the regular season.

But when adversity hit in the Celtics opening round playoff match against Grant, they responded in resounding fashion.

After dropping the first set, McNary rallied back to win the next three games, defeating Grant 19-25, 25-20, 25-17, 25-21 on Wednesday, Oct. 27 to win their first postseason match since 2015.

“I am so excited for them. We have been battling and overcoming one obstacle at a time with injuries and figuring out players playing different positions,” McNary head coach Crystal DeMello said. “They have been able to make that journey all season and come out here and take care of business against a great team. We are beyond happy.”

Junior middle blocker Emily Blagg led the Celtics with 16 kills and Emily Lettenmaier added 13 kills for the Celtics in the win.

“It feels amazing, honestly. Our team really came together,” Lettenmaier said about the victory.

With the score tied at 1-1, both teams went back and forth to begin the third set, but with the score tied at 13-all, McNary began to take control, scoring 14 of the next 18 points to win 25-17. In the fourth set, Grant was able to stay with the Celts early. But as the game wore on, McNary continued to prove that they were the better team.

With Grant up 13-11, the Celtics rattled off six straight points to go up 17-13, forcing the Generals to burn a timeout. A stuff block from Jaelynn Wilcox and a kill by Maddox Snider allowed the Celtics to extend the lead to 21-15.

Lettenmaier ended the match with an emphatic kill to send the Celtics to the second round.

DeMello said the most encouraging aspect of the victory was seeing the trust and confidence her girls had in each other.

“All of them wanted the ball and all of them trusted that there was someone behind them if they were out of position. It was excellent to see them lean on each other and put together a great team effort,” she said.

Sullivan proving to be one of nation’s best

He may be new to the area, but it didn’t take long for Colby Sullivan to establish himself as one of the best young golfers in the Northwest.

Sullivan, who is currently a junior at McNary, was the only golfer from Oregon that competed in the High School Golf National Invitational at Pinehurst Resort, N.C, which took place June 28-30. In the three-day, 54-hole tournament, Sullivan placed 34th out of more than 300 participants, shooting a 78 on day one, a 79 on day two and a 71 on the final day.

“I started to putt a lot better later in the tournament. I felt a lot more relaxed and took more advantage of my birdie chances,” Sullivan said. “Playing in such a big tournament was a little nerve racking, but once I got out there I just played my game. It was a great experience and I think it will prepare me for other tournaments down the road.”

Sullivan grew up in Virginia and experienced immediate success early on in his high school career. As a freshman at Lancaster High School, Sullivan was named the 1A Player of the Year in 2020 — high school golf is a fall sport in Virginia.

Sullivan credits his early high school success to his dad, who at one point competed on the PGA Tour and has played in nine major tournaments.

“My dad really got me into golf at a young age. I was swinging clubs by the time I was three years old,” Sullivan said. “The experience that he has, plus playing with him all the time, has led to my success … Golf is a big deal in my family.”

Even though he still has two more years of high school golf, Sullivan already has his sights set on the next level, and aspires to be a professional golfer one day — just like his father.

“My dream is to go to the U of O. I have always wanted to play there,” Sullivan said. “Even if I don’t get to play there, I am shooting to play at the Division I level.

“The ultimate goal is to do exactly what my dad did and get my PGA Tour card.”

Salazar starts pro career as teenager

After spending nearly a year at the Barcelona Soccer Academy in Arizona, Alex Salazar got the opportunity to advance in his soccer career over the summer.

The former McNary midfielder signed a contract in June to play in North Carolina for the semi-professional team Wake FC of USL League Two.

As an 18-year old, Salazar was the youngest player on the team.

“It was a great feeling to be able to take advantage of an opportunity I know every 18-year old doesn’t get. I just feel really blessed to be where I am at,” Salazar said. “Being the youngest guy on the team was insane. I was playing with 26 and 27-year olds, but they all made me feel very welcome. Playing with those older guys pushed me to be better.”

Before signing with Wake FC, Salazar helped the Barcelona Soccer Academy to a #1 ranking in the country for high school academies.

“It was amazing to play at the academy. They do a really good job of teaching you and preparing you on and off the field,” Salazar said. “I really felt at home there. Coaches were really supportive and cared about you and saw you as more than a soccer player.”

Salazar was also able to train for 10 days this summer with CD Leganés, a Spanish team just outside of Madrid.

“That experience left me speechless. Soccer is all they know in Spain. I saw kids in the street playing all the time,” Salazar said. “The level of play was incredibly high.”

Salazar played in five of the team’s final seven games as a defender. He recorded an assist in his second game with the team, and played all 90 minutes in a contest against the North Carolina Fusion U23 team.

Although Wake FC is a professional team that pays their players, Salazar elected not to collect a paycheck in order to keep his college eligibility — Salazar accepted a scholarship to play at Fresno Pacific University.

Copeland named MVC Player of the Year

The McNary football squad received 16 all-conference spots for the 2021 season, with the top honor going to Celtics senior quarterback Tyler Copeland. 

Despite missing a game and playing half the season with a high-ankle sprain, Copeland was named the Mountain Valley Conference Player of the Year after throwing for 1,757 yards and 22 touchdowns — Copeland also received an honorable mention nod as a safety.

“The hard work has paid off. The Lord has blessed me through this process. I couldn’t have done any of it without Him,” Copeland said. “This is a team sport and my team was always there to pick me up.”

Copeland led McNary to a 7-4 record as well as a playoff win over North Medford.

“You can’t ask for a better competitor. It’s nice to have an athletic quarterback,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said. “I can’t commend that kid enough.”

KLL under new management

At their meeting on Monday, Nov. 15, the Keizer City Council unanimously agreed to grant the management of Keizer Little League to For the Love of the Game, a nonprofit run by Mavericks League owners Jerry and Lisa Walker, plus their son, Mickey.

The contract is for 10 years, with For the Love of the Game’s performance being evaluated every two years by the Keizer city manager.

“We have some really big visions of what we want to do with the complex, improvements we want to make to not only the fields but to the area itself, and hopefully that will directly benefit baseball and softball in this community,” said Mavericks League CEO Mickey Walker.

Some of those big visions include bringing turf to the facility and making the park accessible for other sports.

“Turf is obviously a big thing that we want to have, that is something we would love to be able to accomplish. It’s just a long-term plan, not a one-to-three-year process,” Walker said. “Not only could it benefit baseball and softball, we hope that we can develop it in a way to help other sports, like soccer or lacrosse.”

Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark, who has been a cheerleader of the nonprofit for months, expressed pleasure in For the Love of the Game managing the complex, and criticized the way the park has been run in the past.

“Over the last 10 years we have seen there have been some inconsistencies, and that has not served the players well,” Clark said. “I’m excited to bring on professional management of the facility that will allow parents to watch their kids play instead of serving nachos.”

Days after the Council granted management of Keizer Little Park to For the Love of the Game, the nonprofit officially hired Corey Paul to run the day-to-day operations at the facility.

The Vancouver, Wash. resident will be the lone full-time employee of For the Love of the Game. He will oversee scheduling of fields and maintenance of the park.

Rangers draft Zavala 38th overall

On Monday, July 12, Keizer native and University of Oregon outfielder Aaron Zavala was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the second round of the Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft with the 38th overall pick.

It is the third highest an Oregon player has been drafted since the university revamped their baseball program in 2009.

In his junior season with the Ducks, Zavala was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year and was a consensus first-team All-American, batting .392 with nine homers, 38 RBIs and 64 runs scored.

The assigned value of the pick is just over $1.9 million.

Zavala played 22 games in his first season in the minors, batting .293 with an a homer, nine RBIs and nine stolen bases.