As the rain fell with less than two minutes to play in a chilly first half, the crowd at Flescher Field had perhaps gotten a little cold. The chatter had died down a little, the energy dipped. But that all changed in an instant.
Junior midfielder Jonathan Ruiz dropped the ball back to senior Romeo Ayala who struck the ball past the South Salem goalkeeper, breaking the 1-1 tie and the crowd’s rest with 1:34 to play in the first half.
From that point the Celts never looked back. The crowd stayed in the game, keeping the energy high as they watched the Celts defeat the Saxons 5-2 to secure a second straight Central Valley Conference championship.
It was a winner-take-all matchup to decide the CVC champion that at times got a little chippy. There were four yellow cards, three to South Salem players and one to McNary, and one red card given to a South Salem coach. Despite it all, McNary defended its title, remaining the only champion the conference has had in its short two-year existence.
The Celts used a dominant second half performance to build their lead and hold off the Saxons. They attacked throughout the night, keeping the ball in their own offensive zone. South Salem’s only shot on goal of the second half came from a penalty kick with less than 10 minutes to play.
“They really understood what we were asking for tonight,” Camareana said of the team. “We dominated the possession of the game, which is just the way the team plays and that creates so many opportunities and helps us to win.”
The five goal performance was the third time this season that McNary has scored five or more times in a game. And Tuesday’s goals came in a variety of ways.
Ruiz opened up the scoring early in the first half with a penalty kick less than three minutes into the game, later assisting on Ayala’s tie breaker later in the half.
Early in the second half McNary gave themselves a two-goal cushion on a goal from junior Allan Vazquez Bernal. The Celts came up the field in a flurry of beautiful ball movement up the right sideline that ended in a clear strike for Bernal.
But the Celts certainly didn’t rest with a two goal advantage. In fact, Camarena said it’s possibly more difficult with a larger lead.
“It’s a little more pressure because when you are winning, now you have to be pretty smart to not allow the other team to come back. But these guys never let up,” Camarena said.
Midway through the half senior Misael Rios scored on a free kick from 27 yards out to make it 4-1 in favor of McNary.
South Salem cut into the lead slightly with a penalty kick goal with eight minutes to play, but McNary sophomore Fernando Zepeda responded five minutes later with a one-on-one goal to beat the South Salem keeper and bump the lead up to 5-2.
The 2023 season ended for the Celts much like 2022 did, celebrating a conference championship in the rain after a win against the Saxons. But things early on this season certainly didn’t resemble 2022’s undefeated run through the regular season. Three weeks into this year, they were below .500 at 1-2-2. But, just like on Tuesday with a lead, the Celts didn’t let up in the face of adversity either.
“We knew that this group was special at this time when you lose a couple superstar players,” Camarena said. “Finally we started scoring goals. We created so many every game and finally it was time to score this many in the last games.”
The win not only handed McNary the conference title, but it was also enough to bump them up enough in the rankings to earn a home game in the opening round of the OSAA postseason. The Celts head into the tournament ranked No. 15, and host No. 18 North Medford on Saturday.