McNary shooting guard Nate Meithof drives to the bucket in a game against Sprague last year. Meithof is expected to be one of the leading scorers in the Mountain Valley Conference for a second straight year (File).

In recent memory, the McNary boys basketball program has relied on depth and strong senior classes to maintain their tradition of being one of the best programs in the valley. 

This season, however, the Celtics will be counting on several inexperienced players to step up at the varsity level. 

“I think this year will be a little bit different in that our senior and junior classes won’t be as deep as we have had in the past,” McNary head coach Ryan Kirch said. We’re going to have some inexperience. But it’s fun getting the different pieces and putting them together for our coaching staff.”

McNary put together a 15-10 record during the 2018-19 season, which was highlighted by a 59-57 road victory against second-ranked South Salem. But after suffering some key injuries late in the year, the Celtics faltered down the stretch of their schedule and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by South Eugene.

Four of the Celtics five starters from last year graduated — three of whom received all-league recognition. But their one returner happens to be one of the top players in the Mountain Valley Conference.

Nate Meithof, a 6-foot-2 junior shooting guard, averaged 17 points per game last season and shot 40 percent from behind the arc. Meithof also showed his ability to stuff the stat sheet by averaging 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game, and was named second-team all-league.

“Nate had such an unbelievable year last year. He’s incredibly talented and everything we do on offense will go through him,” Kirch said. “He shoots the ball really well and he can score in many different ways.”

This will be, however, Meithof’s first season as McNary’s top option.

Last year, McNary’s inside-out combo of Meithof and 6-foot-7 center Boston Smith proved to be one top duos in the state. Smith averaged just under 18 points and seven boards per game and earned first-team all-conference honors. 

With the loss of Smith, Meithof will be called upon to step up in the leadership department this season. 

“The biggest thing for (Meithof) is how much better he can make his teammates. That is what we have challenged him with. He has really grown and become more vocal as a leader,” Kirch said. “Nate is as good as anybody in the league. But who surrounds him is still yet to be seen.”

McNary returns three seniors in Riley Flores, Tyler O’Connor and Jamie Ochoa, all of whom received some action off the bench last year. 

“We have challenged them to take take more ownership of leading the team,” Kirch said of his senior trio.

But other than the four players previously mentioned, Kirch acknowledged that everyone will be fighting for spots. 

The Celtics have a relatively strong incoming sophomore class that could have several kids battling for playing time, including Kyler Rodriguez and Tyler Copeland. 

Copeland’s basketball season appeared to be in jeopardy in early-September after suffering a severe knee injury during a JV football game. But according to Kirch, the sophomore guard should be back before league play begins.

“We obviously want to be very cautious with him and talk with him and his family once he is cleared, but from what I understand, he should be ready to go before Christmas break,” Kirch said. “It will be great to get him back. He’s a guy that’s a great competitor and can certainly shoot the ball for us too.”

Incoming freshman point guard Alejandro Gonzalez may also receive some key minutes for the Celtics this season.

“He will have an opportunity to play quite a bit. He’s one of our better shooters and one of the best ball-handlers in out program,” Kirch said. 

One of McNary’s team weaknesses is their size. Along with losing Smith, the Celtics also graduated Noah Hudkins, another 6-foot-7 post who was the team’s top shot-blocker last season.

With a roster full of guards, the Celtics will likely try to get out in transition more and spread things out in their half-court sets. 

“Physically, we will not be quite as developed as we have been in the past, so we will have to adjust our style of play,” Kirch said. 

While this squad likely won’t compete for a MVC title, the season could very well set the tone for future McNary teams. 

“We always look at the growth of the team and how much we can maximize our potential. Ultimately, it’s about getting the group to buy into what we are doing, which is to play for one another and to make each other better,” Kirch said. “Once that happens, we will eventually see the results on the scoreboard.”

“There may be some growing pains, but hopefully we will get to the end of the season and we will be playing our best basketball.”