McNary's Tyler Copeland, who played receiver in the spring, has thrown for 816 yards and 11 touchdowns. (Photo by Tammy Ready)
McNary's Tyler Copeland, who played receiver in the spring, has thrown for 816 yards and 11 touchdowns. (Photo by Tammy Ready)

It's probably premature to measure McNary's football team against its last two Mountain Valley Conference champions in 2018 and 2019.

But the Celtics already have distinguished themselves from those teams, who started each season with five consecutive nonleague losses before running the table in the conference.

McNary opened with three nonleague wins – beating South Medford 35-13, Newberg 17-14 and Grants Pass 41-0 – before defeating host Bend 41-21 in a conference game Friday.

“I think physically we're similar. I think mentally we're better,” McNary coach Jeff Auvinen said. “My other guys didn't have as much confidence against other teams, then we'd get into league and rip into them. They almost flipped a switch mentally. This group, I haven't seen that mentality yet. They really play with some confidence and a joy for the game.”

Despite finishing 3-3 in the spring season – including 0-3 against conference teams – Auvinen sensed that the Celtics had the type of senior leadership and camaraderie that would reap dividends this season.

“I've kind of been looking forward to their senior year,” Auvinen said. “I'm kind of an old-school guy, and they have kind of an old-school mentality that they don't care about the hype, they just want to compete and hang out and have fun together. They show up every day with their lunch pail and go to work.”

A 44-43 loss to South Salem in the spring finale lit a fire under the Celtics in the offseason.

“That kind of set with them a little bit for a while,” Auvinen said. “We have a lot of returning guys, especially in the skill positions, so with only five months off, they kind of picked up where they left off. They learned from what we were challenged with and went from there.”

Tyler Copeland, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior, is growing into the quarterback role in his first season as the starter. He played quarterback in youth football, but with Erik Barker and Jack McCarty ahead of him at McNary, he contributed as a receiver and safety in his high school career.

Copeland has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 816 yards and 11 touchdowns with two interceptions for the season. In the win over Bend, he threw for a season-high 316 yards and three touchdowns.

“He's been a huge playmaker for us,” Auvinen said. “He'll shake a couple guys off and buy some time, and he'll keep his eyes down the field, and those guys will keep scrambling around, getting open. Our offense is starting to click a little bit. Against Bend, he did that a number of times. The kids do a great job of being on the same page as him.”

Copeland has had success finding junior receiver Braiden Copeland (18 catches, 297 yards, five touchdowns), his brother, as well as senior receiver Gunner Smedema (12 catches, 219 yards, five touchdowns) and senior running back Zane Aicher (12 catches, 226 yards, one touchdown).

Tyler Copeland also has been a force at free safety. He has been solid not only in pass coverage, but also when he moves up to the edge to help stop the run, such as he did against Bend.

“Defense comes very naturally for him,” Auvinen said. “He's a very headsy defender. And quarterback-wise, he's gotten really physical, and his arm is getting more and more accurate. He's a great wide receiver, so it would be nice to split him out, but we don't want to take him away from the quarterback spot.”

Braiden Copeland (6-2, 195), Smedema (5-9, 175) and Aicher (5-11, 195) also are among the half-dozen Celtics who are two-way starters. Aicher is a third-year starter at strong safety, Smedema is a second-year starter at cornerback and Braiden Copeland plays linebacker.

Smedema, who serves as the backup quarterback, is a versatile athlete, playing point guard in basketball and a shortstop in baseball. He has shined on both sides of the ball.

“He's just a baller. He does it all,” Auvinen said. “He can catch short passes, long passes, he can run the fly sweep. On defense, he's just a lockdown corner.”

Aicher showed that he is a dual threat against Bend by rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries and catching four passes for 148 yards and a score.

The Celtics will try to go to 5-0 when they play host to Sprague (2-2, 0-2) on Friday. Unlike the last three seasons, they will play a full Mountain Valley schedule, including first-ever conference matchups against Mountain View (2-2, 1-1) and Summit (3-1, 2-0).

“I think our league is pretty salty,” Auvinen sid. “I think everyone can beat everyone.”