By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
It would be easier to talk about if there had been some magic moment where every thing seemed to go wrong, but it was a slow burn that did in the McNary High School varsity football team in its playoff play-in game with Grants Pass High School Friday, Nov. 4.
The Celts lost 40-21 extending a playoff absence that’s lasted since 2008. But sports are about more than wins and losses, it’s about the character athletes build along the way and, by that measure, McNary’s locker room was bursting at the seams this season.
“We’ve been playing this game together for nine years now and for a lot of us, it’s done,” said Celt Corey White. “We went out on our home field and we had all of our friends and family there to support us and that was a cool thing to end on.”
Quarterback Justin Burgess said, “Earlier in the season, the linemen were their own groups and the receivers were their own group and …”
“The walls came down,” White said, finishing the sentence.
It was that sort of camaraderie that propelled the Celtics from the start of a dismal season to a strong finish, said Rick Ward, McNary head coach, “It was fun group of kids to be around and, because of it, they came a long way from where they started.”
Early in the play-in game, it seemed as though the Celtics were out to prove all their critics wrong with defensive stops that left no question as to why McNary’s linemen were all among those selected for all-conference honors.
On the Cavemen’s first drive, Austin Hejny, Mason Ross, and Bruce Isabel made stops that kept Grants Pass to short gains. A blown lateral and near interception by D.J. Harryman brought up a turnover on downs.
Despite first downs by Celts Garren Robinett on a reception and Justin Burgess on a quarterback keeper, McNary sputtered on its next drive when a missed handoff ended up under one of the Cavemen. Three plays later, Grants Pass’ Logan Dean snuck through on the short side and bolted down the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown. The Cavemen opted to try for the two-point conversion, but Hejny slapped the pass leaving the guests with a 6-0 lead.
Celt Cody Bond answered right back roping in the kickoff one-handed on a bounce and slipping two tackles for 72-yard return and the 7-6 lead after the PAT by Gonzolo Cervantes.
McNary’s defense stepped in and held the team to two first downs. A sack by Jordan Zielinski left Grants Pass at third and 12 yards to go and Hejny broke up a pass attempt that gave McNary a turnover on downs.
Things took a turn for the worse on McNary’s return drive when Burgess retreated into the backfield and ended up sacked twice putting the team at fourth and 31 and leaving no option but to punt. The Celts got a second chance when Hejny drew a roughing the kicker call and gave the team a first down at the McNary 28-yard-line, but the team couldn’t find traction in the air or on the ground to make something of the drive.
Burgess, Zielinski and Garrett Hittner helped keep the team in it with stops that forced a Caveman punt. The kick bounced off the hands of Jacob Sperle as he leaped to pull it in and Grants Pass recovered. It looked as though McNary might keep the team to a field goal with Celt Tyler Brown making critical stops at the goal line, but a shovel pass allowed the Cavemen to swing wide and drive it home for a 12-7 lead. McNary’s White drew an offensive tackle call on the try at a two-point conversion.
Runs by Cody Bond, pitches from Harryman and Burgess to Gardner, and a pass interference call helped move the team down the field and set up Harryman to connect with Burgess on a three-yard touchdown pass for a 14-12 McNary lead.
McNary’s defense forced a long Caveman drive on their next outing, but couldn’t keep the team out of the end zone. Grants Pass struck back to take a 19-14 lead just before halftime.
“We started off decent, we knew what they were running defensewise. Their offense just ran the ball a lot,” Burgess said.
McNary took over the ball after the half and pushed to the Grants Pass 43-yard-line, but Burgess got caught on the keeper with fourth and one yard to go. Grants Pass took a 26-14 lead on a 23-yard touchdown run by Dean after he slipped through a strong tackle by White.
McNary’s next drive ended with an intercepted pass intended for Gardner and despite several stops the Cavemen struck again for the a 33-14 lead.
“It wasn’t like they had too many big plays, it was just that they had eight yards a run or seven yards a run and they kept getting those big chunks and it was easier for them to convert those. We couldn’t get them on first down and that affected the game,” White said.
McNary didn’t lose heart completely, but neither passing nor running produced much on two successive drives. The Caveman put their final points of the game on the board at 4:25 in the fourth quarter on a one-yard run by Chad Lowe. The team appeared to hit its low mark on the next drive when Burgess was brought to his knees in the pocket and the ball bounced out of his hands for the Cavemen to recover.
McNary’s season ended with one of its hallmark plays in the final minute. Burgess connected with Robinett on a 31-yard bomb in the end zone bringing the final score to 40-21.
Robinett, who led the state in catches this season, finished the night with 90 yards on six receptions and the touchdown. Gardner, a top 10 placer in state wide catches, finished the night with 79 yards on five catches. Burgess completed 19 of 19 for 141 yards. Harryman completed five of seven for 45 yards.
The thing that Ward hopes his charges take away from the season is the character they developed over the course of the past three months, “Nobody gave up. When we had a down week, everybody came to practice and went back to work. It was a nice transformation.”