McNary receiver Braiden Copeland looks for extra yardage after a first down catch. Copeland caught nine passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns for the Celtics (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

Despite not being at full strength, McNary had a chance to take over the top spot in the Mountain Valley Conference (MVC) with a win over West Salem on Friday, Oct. 15. But late in the fourth quarter, the Celtics defense couldn't get a stop when they needed it most.

Trailing by 20 points in the third quarter, McNary staged a second half comeback to get within a score in the fourth quarter. But the Celtics offense didn't get a chance to touch the ball again as West Salem ran the final six minutes off the clock to defeat McNary 34-27 and maintain sole possession of first place in the Mountain Valley Conference (MVC). 

“We just made too many mistakes. I can't compliment our kids enough for how they battled, we just need to clean up those mistakes,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said. 

McNary's first miscue came on the opening kickoff as Jesse Dyer lost the football on a return to the Celtics 38-yard line, giving the Titans great field position. After a pair of third down conversions, West Salem running back Hudson Giertych ran it in from 10 yards out, giving his team the 7-0 lead. 

With McNary quarterback Tyler Copeland still nursing a high-ankle sprain he suffered two weeks prior, Gunner Smedema resumed the Celtics signal-calling duties for the second straight contest. Unlike last game against South Salem, where Copeland was in street clothes, the Celtics senior leader was dressed in full pads in case he needed to make an emergency appearance. 

It became apparent after their first drive that McNary would need to turn to Copeland in a crisis. 

After only 25 yards passing the week prior, Smedema surpassed his previous total on McNary's first play from scrimmage, connecting on a go route to Braiden Copeland for a 42-yard gain. Moments later, Smedema found Aron Montoya for 12 yards, giving the Celtics a first-and-goal situation from the six-yard line.

However, two plays later, the injury bug bit McNary once again. 

On second-and-goal, Smedema took off on a designed quarterback sweep and was tackled by multiple defenders for no gain.

When the pile cleared, Smedema was still on the ground, clutching his right leg. After being tended to by McNary trainers, Smedema was helped off the field, but couldn't put any weight on his injured leg.

With a thick brace wrapped around his injured ankle, Tyler Copeland hobbled out to the field to take snaps at quarterback. 

“It was very scary to see (Smedema) go down like that,” Tyler Copeland said. “When he went down, I told myself that I had to show up for my team.”

After the game, Auvinen explained the hesitancy behind starting his senior quarterback, and why he put him in the game after Smedema went down. 

“I never doubted him for a bit, I was just trying to look down the road for the rest of our season and wanted him as healthy as possible because he is a huge part of our team,” he said. “He was our best option.”

On the first play after the injury, McNary running back Zane Aicher scored from two yards out to tie the game at 7-7. But the Celtics offense went stagnant for the next three drives. 

After West Salem quarterback Brooks Ferguson hit Zach Dodsen Greene for a 30-yard touchdown late in the first quarter, McNary went three-and-out on the ensuing possession.

To make matters worse for the Celtics, McNary punter Logan Ready had the fourth down snap go over his head, which gave West Salem the ball in the red zone.

The Celtics defense came up with their first stop of the game when McNary safety Pierce Walker intercepted a Ferguson pass in the end zone. But the Celtics would wind up giving the ball right back to the Titans. 

On the second play after the turnover, Tyler Copeland tried to hit Aicher on a screen pass, but the throw sailed backwards past Aicher and was recovered by West Salem at the one-yard line. Ferguson snuck in for the score on the next play to extend West Salem's lead to 21-7 early in the second quarter. 

“That was the difference in the game. If we clean those things up we will be in good shape,” Auvinen said. 

West Salem would score again to go up 28-7 after another empty possession for the Celtics offense.

With the Titans on the verge of putting the score out of reach, Tyler Copeland got McNary back in the game with an important touchdown drive before the half. 

First down completions to Braiden Copeland and Montoya helped McNary march into opposing territory. With 1:23 left in the half, the McNary front five gave Tyler Copeland ample time in the pocket to find Dyer — who got free on a double move — in the corner of the end zone for the 32-yard score, cutting the lead to 14.

“Tyler was getting the ball out pretty quick. The protection was decent and I think the receivers did a good job at getting open,” Auvinen said. 

When healthy, Tyler Copeland's mobility plays a big factor in his ability and effectiveness as a quarterback. Although he couldn't scramble, he was able to operate in a clean pocket for the majority of the night thanks to his offensive line. 

“I think that was the O-line's best game of the season. They gave me enough time to sit in the pocket,” Tyler Copeland said. 

West Salem went back up by three scores midway through the third quarter. Once again, McNary responded. 

Three first down completions got McNary inside the West Salem 10-yard line. On third-and-goal Braiden Copeland faked to inside then cut outside, and his older brother, Tyler, hit him with a perfect throw for a four-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 34-21.

On previous possessions, Tyler Copeland saw that the West Salem secondary was biting on the slant route, which is why, before the play, he told Braiden to fake the slant and try to beat his defender to the sideline. 

“We made that up on the fly. It was supposed to be a slant. I asked him if he could beat him on a whip. He told me yes and I had faith in him,” Tyler Copeland said. 

Trailing by 13 heading into the fourth quarter, McNary's defense picked up a massive fourth down stop to get their offense the ball back. Minutes later, it was the Copeland to Copeland connection once again as Tyler found Braiden wide open for a 40-yard score after a West Salem cornerback fell down.

It ended up being a career-game for Braiden Copeland, who caught nine passes for 169 yards, and his second touchdown made it a one possession game for the first time since the opening period. 

“If we wanted to win the game I needed to throw it to my best receiver,” Tyler Copeland said. 

Not to be outdone, Tyler Copeland, despite playing hurt, went 17-of-24 through the air for 211 yards and three touchdowns, nearly rallying McNary to a victory.

“(Tyler) gave us a chance to win. If we got the ball back, the way our offense was rolling, we had a really good chance,” Auvinen said. 

While McNary's 4-3 defensive scheme has been successful for most of the season, the Celtics front seven struggled against West Salem in the trenches. And on the Titans final possession, they used their physicality to their advantage. 

“We got handled. We were putting seven in the box and we were still getting handled. We didn't get off blocks very well and we didn't play with a very low center of gravity. To their credit, they came off the ball really hard and took it to us and we did not handle it very well,” Auvinen said. 

After the McNary score, West Salem regained possession with just over six minutes on the clock. Without putting the ball through the air once on the drive, the Titans converted three straight third downs to milk more than three minutes off the clock.

The Celtics had one final chance to try and stop the Titans on fourth-and-one, but Ferguson picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak, allowing West Salem to go into victory formation. 

“We just couldn't get it done. They overpowered us a little bit. It wasn't from lack of effort, they were just better than us tonight in the trenches,” Auvinen said.

McNary (5-2, 2-2 MVC) will attempt to bounce back this weekend as they host their final home game of the season against Mountain View (3-4, 1-3 MVC) at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 23. 

Matt Rawlings: [email protected]