It was strength versus weakness heading into Friday night’s Special District 1 league opener, and unfortunately for the McNary Celtics, things went as one might have expected.
South Medford came in with a dominant run game while the McNary defense had struggled on the ground, allowing three 100-yard rushers through two weeks. The Panthers added two more to that tally in the 35-0 win at McNary.
“You watch the film, it’s exactly what they want to do,” McNary head coach Connor Astley said. “They don’t want to throw the ball. If they’re throwing the ball, we’re doing something right on defense and they stuck to their game plan and it worked for them really, really well.”
The Panthers finished with 434 yards rushing and just four pass attempts for the game. Through two weeks they had the third, fourth and fifth highest rushers in SD1, and even with their leading rusher Kameron Rague out, South Medford’s ground game was sustainable and dominant.
Ryder Scheid went for 195 yards and three TDs on 15 carries. Bridger Foss had 110 yards and a score on just six carries.
Even with South Medford’s ground success, the McNary defense made things tough for them to start.
The Celts’ Bradley Fryman forced and recovered a fumble from Foss just two plays into the game. Fryman led both teams in tackles on the night with eight.
McNary followed that up by forcing a punt on South Medford’s second possession. A low snap sent punter Gannen Jones running for the first down marker, but he was stopped short at the 20-yard line.
McNary had South Medford backed up on the Panthers’ third possession, starting out at their own 15, but after getting some breathing room Foss broke a 51-yard run to set up the first North Medford score.
It was another big run on the Panthers’ fourth possession that led to another touchdown. This time it was Scheid going for 46 yards to set up the score.
“It’s deflating because they just took off on a big run, but it’s also encouraging if we would’ve just had that one guy there, if we would’ve just had that one step there we’re right there,” Astley said. “I told the guys this, ‘at the end of the game we’re going to evaluate the film and you’re going to see that there were a lot of good things that came out of this, but we’re just a step behind, a step out of place.’”
And McNary did have plenty of good things to reflect on. Despite losing the battle in points and yardage, there were a few important facets of the game where McNary did come away on top.
They didn’t turn the ball over, giving them the edge in the turnover battle 1-0. That fumble recovery and the stop on the fake punt helped give the Celts an edge in starting field possession. McNary’s average starting position was their own 41-yard line, while South Medford started at their own 27.
Caden Balos-Masey helped the Celts win that field position battle with 214 yards on four kick returns.
According to Astley, the Celtics switched up their return scheme heading into the week. After setting up middle returns to start the season, the Celtics were prepared for a right/left return against South Medford.
While the scheme might have something to do with Balos-Masey’s success, Astley gave his returner the credit too.
“I think he finally just saw the holes and he was just able to visually see it and hit it and have some confidence going into it,” Astley said.
Offensively the Celts could never find their footing Friday night, but even with those struggles, there are still positives.
While quarterback Gage Smedema was under pressure much of the night, the offensive line didn’t allow a sack. And of his nine completions, Smedema connected with eight different pass catchers.
This was the first game of arguably the toughest four-game stretch on the Celtics schedule. South Medford entered the week ranked No. 9 in the state, one of three teams in four weeks that are in the top-nine — McNary plays No. 1 North Salem on Sept. 29 and No. 8 South Salem on Oct. 6. Before that, the Celtics travel down to face defending runner-up Sheldon. The Irish earned their first win of the season on Friday against Sprague.
Despite Sheldon’s early struggles, they’re still among the top programs in the state, and Astley knows they’re not your typical 1-2 school.
And for Astley and the Celtics, the keys for this stretch are obvious.
“Got to stay healthy,” Astley said. “Got to be smart in practice, got to be smart in our preparation, got to be smart in the weight room.”
Kickoff for McNary and Sheldon is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Sheldon High School in Eugene.