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By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes
Surrounded by his teammates who have become like brothers, Hakam Nagra sat at midfield for as long as he could, trying to fight back the tears after a 57-6 loss to West Salem on Friday, Oct. 27, thinking he had played his final home game at McNary.
But thanks to a top 16 finish in the final OSAA power rankings, Nagra and McNary’s other 22 seniors will get another shot to go out at home as winners when the Celtics, No. 14, host No. 19 Grants Pass on Friday, Nov. 3 in the first round of the state playoffs.
“To get one back home is a real blessing,” Nagra said. “Everybody is amped. Everybody is watching film. Everybody is going hard at practice. I’m really excited going forward.”
McNary and Grants Pass, both 6-3, have similar resumes. Grants Pass finished third in the Southwest Conference behind two of the top 10 teams in the state, falling to No. 5 South Medford 40-21 and No. 7 Sheldon 62-20.
The Cavemen’s other loss came to Sprague, 54-27.
McNary head coach Jeff Auvinen and Nagra both compared Grants Pass to McMinnville, who came from behind to defeat the Celtics 39-35 in the final minute on Oct. 6.
“Their linebackers play close,” Nagra said of Grants Pass.
“They have a three-man front. They don’t blitz very much. There are some key weaknesses in the defense. They’re not very big either so it’s a good matchup for us.”
Grants Pass is led on offense by junior quarterback Blain Hobbs, 6-foot-6-inch senior wide receiver Tayler Phillips and three senior running backs—Vincent Washington, Richie England and Teigan Jokumsen.
“They’re not mind-boggling good,” Auvinen said. “They do everything well. They’re well coached. Their margin of victory is probably a little bit more dominant than their games are. They seem to win games by three touchdowns that are pretty close. That tells me they’re making plays when they need to.
“They also do a good job of getting turnovers. They compete. I think we match up real well. I think the kids are excited for the playoffs.”
McNary is hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2013 when the Celtics defeated Roseburg in the first round, which is also the last time McNary won a playoff game.
The Celtics were the 14 seed then as well.
While McNary is undefeated on the road this season, the Celtics are 1-3 at home with the only win coming against North Salem to open the season.
“Maybe sometimes people get too amped with everyone here to watch us,” Nagra said of the team struggling at home.
“They’re focused on wanting to look good than actually paying attention in the game and getting something done. If you go away, you have something to prove, it’s your job to get it done. If we switch that mentality around like we do at away games at home, than we’ll get it done.”