McNary receiver Tyler Copeland stiff-arms a defender on his way to picking up a first down (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

Former broadcaster Jim McKay once famously described that sports bring athletes “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The McNary football team may be agonizing over this senior night defeat for months to come.

Despite holding a 24-point lead in the first half and forcing seven turnovers the Celtics couldn't prevent South Salem from scoring 30 unanswered points and coming back for the 44-43 overtime win on Friday, April 9.

McNary finishes the season with a 3-3 record.

“It is just really bittersweet. I love these guys. I love being out here with these guys. It just really sucks having an outcome like that in your last game,” McNary senior linebacker Dyami Rios said.

South Salem grabbed the early momentum when Javier Ramirez Perez took back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but for the remainder of the first half, it was all McNary.

After the Saxons got the ball back on a McNary fumble inside the red zone, the Celtics got their first of five interceptions as defensive back Gunner Smedema picked off South Salem quarterback Drew Gertenrich's first pass of the night.

First down completions from Jack McCarty to Logan Ready and Tyler Copeland — as well as the first of many pass interference penalties — put the Celtics inside the five-yard line. McNary running back Zane Aicher then punched it in from three yards out to give the Celtics their first lead at 7-6.

McNary would score again off another Saxons interception on their next possession. After an interception by McNary linebacker Kyle Grass, the Celts marched 62 yards down the field and finished off the drive with a four-yard touchdown pass from McCarty to Ethan Martin.

“Everything was working. We were getting a good push up front, our receivers were catching the ball, I was making the right reads. We were just clicking in the first half,” McCarty said.

McCarty finished the game going 29-for-50 for 361 yards — all career-highs. 

McCarty kept his rhythm going into the second quarter, hitting Smedema in perfect stride on a wheel route for a 29-yard gain. Aicher punched it from a yard out two plays later for his second score of the night to extend McNary’s advantage to 21-6. 

After getting it done on the offensive end, Aicher came up with a huge play on defense, stripping Gertenrich of the football for another Saxons turnover. McNary converted the turnover into a 22-yard field goal from Ready. 

It appeared that the game was getting closer to a rout after an interception by Tyler Copeland, which led to a touchdown catch by his brother, Braiden, to give the Celtics a 30-6 lead. However, the Saxons got the lead down to 30-12 before the break after a four-yard touchdown run by Tony Rodriguez.

Even though it was still an 18-point game, the score before half caused a big shift in momentum.

“We were the physical team in the first half and they were the physical team in the second half,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said. “That was definitely a game of momentum.”

Even after third quarter interceptions by Tyler Copeland and Aron Montoya, as well as a recovered fumble by Smedema, the Celtics' offense struggled after losing offensive lineman Coleman Young to an injury in the second quarter.

“We knew we had to get the ball back into the offense’s hands as much as we could. Our DB's were making a great effort, I just wish we were able to capitalize on those turnovers more,” Rios said.

South Salem cut the lead to 10 after McCarty’s option toss was batted down by a defender and recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. 

While the McNary offense was sputtering, fatigue began to set in for the Celtics defense as they allowed the Saxons to score on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to two at 30-28.

“Our guys were gassed. We were out there for a long time,” Rios said.

“I don't know if we let our foot off the gas a little in the second half, but they made some good adjustments,” McCarty added. 

After a South Salem interception on a tipped pass, South Salem receiver Gabe Johnson lined up in the wildcat and scampered 14 yards for the score to give the Saxons their first lead at 36-30. 

McNary, however, showed that they still had some fight left after giving up 30 straight points. 

McCarty began the drive with a 25-yard completion to Aron Montoya, then followed with a 29-yard pass to Martin after extending the play. A 34-yard screen to Braiden Copeland put the Celtics inside the 10-yard line. 

“We struggled leveling off the ups and downs of momentum. But towards the end we started picking it up. Guys were making plays,” McCarty said.

After three incompletions, the Celtics faced fourth-and-goal at the seven-yard line. But on fourth down, McCarty delivered one of the most clutch plays of his career, escaping pressure, rolling to his left and throwing a strike to Montoya for the score to tie the game up midway through the final period. 

Montoya, who came into the game with just 42 yards receiving, was much more involved in the offense than in previous games, catching four balls for 64 yards and a score. 

“It just kind of happened. (Montoya) just stepped up. We never really go to specific guys, whoever is open is getting the ball. He happened to be open a lot,” McCarty said.

However, with a chance to take the lead back, Ready missed the extra point after the Montoya touchdown, a McNary error that proved to be costly down the stretch.

Both teams failed to score before the end of regulation, forcing the game into overtime. 

McNary got the first possession in OT and went to work quickly as a completion to Martin and a first down run from Braiden Copeland put the ball inside the three-yard line. Copeland later scored on a one-yard run, allowing McNary to re-take the lead.

The Celtics forced South Salem into a fourth down situation in the Saxons overtime possession. Gertenrich threw the ball across the middle that fell incomplete and the Celtics started celebrating on the field, believing that they won the game. But a late flag was thrown calling pass interference on McNary, which negated the incompletion and gave South Salem a first down. 

“I didn't agree with a lot of the calls the refs made, but that's neither here nor there,” Rios said. “We were the better team and we should have beat them, we just didn't execute in the second half.”

Auvinen added: “We had way too many penalties and breakdowns. We did certain things well at times, but nothing was consistent.”

Gertenrich scored on a four-yard quarterback draw to cut the lead to one moments later, and with the kicking issues they experienced all night, the Saxons elected to go for two and the win.

Johnson once again lined up in the wildcat on the two-point play, found a crease and snuck across the goal line, propelling the Saxons to the one-point victory.

“I love winning and I hate losing, but right now all I am really thinking about is the guys I have been playing football with since we were kids,” McCarty said.

After the game had concluded, the Celtics held their senior night ceremony, honoring the nine seniors who had given the last four years to the program.

“My four years have been completely amazing. I have grown a lot as a player and a person. I love the coaching staff here,” Rios said. 

While he is going to miss his seniors, Auvinen hopes that this loss will serve as fuel for the team when they begin preparing for the fall season. 

“These guys are great kids, just a pleasure to be around. They work their butt off. They are good to each other and good to their coaches. Hopefully this will make us hungry for the fall because I think these kids will want to get the sour taste out of their mouth,” Auvinen said.

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]