McNary’s Erik Barker dodges a pair of West Salem defenders. The senior quarterback threw for 249 yards and the game-winning touchdown, helping the Celtics move to 3-0 in Mountain Valley Conference play (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
In what was arguably the most important situation of the season, senior quarterback Erik Barker made the biggest throw of his life in his final game at Flesher Field.
With 1:17 remaining in the contest, the McNary football squad trailed West Salem by a score of 23-21 with no timeouts and the ball on their own 35-yard line facing second-and-10.
With great protection from his offensive line, Barker faded back to pass in a clean pocket, saw Junior Nunez break open up the left sideline and fired an absolute dart to the transfer from Central High.
Nunez dodged a tackle from the Titans free safety and sprinted 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown as McNary defeated West Salem 27-23 on Friday, Oct. 25. leaving the Celtics alone at the top of the Mountain Valley Conference with a 3-0 record.
“At first I thought (Nunez) was going to get caught, but Junior started to pull away and I was like 'oh my gosh, he's going to score,'” Barker said. “My heart was racing. I've never been more excited in my life. This is the best feeling in the world.”
Despite starting the season 0-5 for the second straight year, the Celtics earn at least a share of the Mountain Valley Conference crown — they can clinch their second consecutive title outright with a victory over South Salem on Friday, Nov. 1.
“I'm just so proud of these kids for battling through all the adversity. They wanted this one really bad,” McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen said.
The Celtics played from behind for almost the entirety of the contest, starting when West Salem scored less than three minutes into the game on a one-yard score from Nathan Garcia.
McNary nearly got let things get out of hand on their ensuing offensive possession when Barker was stripped of the football while scrambling. West Salem’s Deaun Armstrong picked up the fumble and returned it all the way to the Celtics 13-yard line.
But with their backs against the wall, the McNary defense came up with a huge stop as Nunez broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth down to give the his team the ball back.
From there, Barker began to get into a rhythm, connecting with Nunez and Noah Lelack for big plays down the middle of the field.
Barker finished the game with season highs in completions (16) and yards (249).
“When we establish the run, the defense is going to put more guys in the box, and that helps us take advantage of the numbers on the outside. That's been our philosophy all year and it paid off in this game,” Barker said.
Inside the red zone moments later, McNary's Junior Walling picked up a first down on fourth-and-four to keep the drive alive. The senior running back, who rushed for 129 yards and two scores, would punch it in from a yard out three plays later to tie the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
It took West Salem less than two minutes to respond as quarterback Jackson Lowery hit Nick Paslay with a perfect pass on a stop-and-go rout to put the Titans up 14-7.
McNary came right back with the ball and appeared to be on their way to scoring another touchdown after Walling took a screen pass down to the one-yard line.
But on the play, Armstrong suffered a serious leg injury and was carted off the field, delaying the game for nearly 20 minutes — West Salem head coach Shaun Stanley says that trainers were taking extra precautions as they weren't sure if Armstrong had a broken femur.
On the next play after the delay, Barker had the shotgun snap go through his legs and roll all the way to the 25-yard line, where the loose ball was recovered by the Titans.
“We did a good job of moving the ball, but we shot ourselves in the foot a few times. But I knew that we could score on them if we didn't turn the ball over and consistently moved the chains,” Auvinen said.
It was a backbreaking mistake for the Celtics offense, but McNary's defense would force the Titans first turnover of the game moments later when sophomore linebacker Quinn Bach picked off a batted ball near midfield.
After the interception, the Celtics were able to get in position for Daniel Mood to hit a 31-yard field goal before the half to cut the lead to 14-10. Mood would also connect on a 25-yard field goal on the McNary opening drive of the third quarter.
West Salem quickly answered back with a 17-yard score by Garcia on their following possession, but Walling capped off McNary's next drive with his second touchdown of the game from five yards out. Barker then followed by scoring on a sweep to the right side on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21-all.
The Titans, however, re-took the lead late in the third quarter when Mood, who was punting out of his own end zone, bobbled the snap and had to go to the ground to recover the ball, which resulted in a safety.
Despite not a drop of rain falling to the artificial turf all night, McNary continued to have their struggles with muffed snaps. Mood came back out to attempt a 38-yard field goal with just over seven minutes remaining in the contest, which would have given the Celtics the lead. But holder Jack McCarty couldn't handle the snap, and McNary was forced to give the ball back to the Titans after not even getting the kick off.
“I think some of the kids started to feel the pressure and there was a little too much tightness in certain situations,” Auvinen said.
Once they regained possession, West Salem milked nearly six minutes off the clock and got the ball inside the red zone as McNary's chances appeared to be fading away.
A holding penalty on the Titans took the ball back to the 24-yard line. With a pair of rushing stops and an incomplete pass, West Salem faced fourth-and-21.
With a defensive stop, McNary would get the ball back with a little over a minute to play and one timeout. But before the fourth down play, Auvinen decided to burn his final timeout., even though the clock was stopped.
“I didn't like what we were in. The call came in kind of late and we looked a little confused, so I thought it was better to be safe than sorry. I didn't want to use that timeout, but I thought it would be better to get this fourth down play how I wanted it,” Auvinen said. “I was hoping the offense could pull off the one-minute drive.”
In the end, the decision worked out in Auvinen's favor.
McNary linebacker Dyami Rios came on a blitz from the outside to sack Lowery on the fourth down play, giving the Celtics one final chance to go win the game with 1:22 remaining.
It was on the second play of the drive when Barker recognized that the Titans were in a cover two defense. After watching the cornerback come up to protect short pass, the veteran signal-caller knew he had an open window to hit Nunez up the sideline.
“On that play, my first read is that corner, because they looked like they were in cover two. The back corner just bit on the bubble rout, so that made Junior wide open up the sideline and I was able to hit him before the safety came over,” Barker said.
Nunez added:“Erik just saw me open and hit me. When I got the ball, I knew I was gone.”
While he is one of the faster players on the McNary roster, Auvinen believes that Nunez kicked it into another gear while sprinting up the sideline.
“Erik delivered a great ball on time and Junior made a nice catch. I think that's the fastest I have ever seen him run. The kid can run, but he looked faster than I have ever seen him after that catch,” Auvinen said.
West Salem had one last ditch effort in them with under a minute to go. But with no timeouts, the clock ran out on the Titans chances as Griffin Hubbard took down West Salem's Brody McMullen as time expired, sending the Celtic faithful into celebration mode.
“I have no words, this is just an amazing feeling,” Nunez said.
After starting 0-5 last season, McNary won all four of their MVC games to clinch the conference title. This season, the Celtics are right on the verge of doing the improbable once again if they can defeat the South Salem Saxons — who they beat last season in the final regular season game.
The game will be at South Salem at 7 p.m.
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