The McNary football team celebrates with the Mountain Valley Conference Championship trophy after beating South Salem 35-15 (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).
Most coaches would be pretty distraught with a 0-5 start.
But even after the McNary football team dropped their fifth straight contest against South Medford on Friday, Oct. 4, head coach Jeff Auvinen wasn’t dismayed in the slightest, saying that this season felt “eerily similar to last season” — when the Celtics rallied to win all four league games in route to a Mountain Valley Conference title, despite losing their first five games of the year.
When the regular season came to an end on Friday, Nov. 1, Auvinen proved himself to be prophetic.
Running back Junior Walling scampered for a season-high 216 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries as the Celtics danced their way to a second straight MVC title, defeating South Salem 35-15.
It is the first time since 1998 that McNary has repeated as league champions.
“We have been working for this all year. It’s huge for us seniors because we have been dreaming about this. It’s just such an amazing feeling,” Walling said.
The Celtics offense wasted no time getting to work as they went 61 yards in six plays on their opening drive, which was capped off by a 33-yard touchdown by Walling.
South Salem, however, responded by marching right down the field on their first possession of the game — partially due to a pair of costly penalties by the McNary defense.
On fourth-and-goal from the McNary one-yard line, Saxons quarterback Griffin Gardner connected with Gabe Johnson in the corner of the end zone, giving South Salem the 7-6 lead.
Late into the first quarter, it appeared that the fans were in for a shootout as both offenses were racking up multiple big plays.
Walling scored his second touchdown of the game from four yards out with 1:01 left in the opening period. The Celtics took a 14-7 lead after Layton Thurlow caught a pass in the end zone from Erik Barker on the two-point conversion.
South Salem got the ball back and wasted no time getting into the red zone early in the second quarter. And similar to their first drive, the Saxons faced fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line.
Gardner was one again looking for Johnson on a shallow out rout. But this time, Walling, who was coming on a pass-rush from the left side, leapt up and knocked the ball to the ground, forcing the Saxons to turn the ball over on downs.
The defensive stop ended up providing a huge momentum boost for McNary.
Using a key first down run from Barker, a pair of receptions from Noah Lelack and a steady dose of hard-fought carries from Walling, the Celtics slowly broke the will of the South Salem defense.
A 23-yard run from Riley Flores took the ball down to the two, where Walling punched it in on the following play to complete the 99-yard drive.
“I think that whole series was awfully big. After getting the goal-line stand, the ability to run it out of there was big. We could run the football whenever we wanted to tonight,” Auvinen said.
McNary ground game was as good as it’s been all year in this one as the Celtics rushed for a season-high 393 yards.
“I have never seen this offensive line play so well. All five of us came out super strong. It was pound and ground all night,” McNary center Nathan Young said. “We were keeping the defense on their heels.”
Walling also added: “I just trusted my line. They were getting a push all game, so I got to give them all the credit.”
Despite having a lot of success with their vertical passing game in their first two drives, the South Salem defense struggled to get anything going against the Celtics defense for the remainder of the contest.
After the Saxons could barely get past the line of scrimmage on their next two drives, the Celtics increased their lead to three scores midway through the third quarter when Barker found the goal line from four yards out.
“Our defense kept getting tougher and tougher throughout the game. We got a few three-and-outs and I think that was huge for us,” Walling said.
Even though the South Salem offense drove into Celtic territory in each of their next two possessions, the McNary defense forced turnovers both times, including a interception from Celtics linebacker Quinn Bach that was returned to the Saxons 24-yard line — which eventually set up Walling’s fourth touchdown of the game.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s the same exact story as last season. This team has fought so hard throughout the season. It’s an honor to play with these guys,” Young said.
Auvinen added: “We have really grown as a group as the weeks have gone on. It’s been very good to see us improve on both offense and defense. The kids have stayed with it, the coaches have stayed with it and the community has stayed with it. It’s been a testament to the city of Keizer.”