The South Salem High School football team clinched its second consecutive Greater Valley Conference title in spectacular fashion Friday night by pounding McNary 56-12.
The Saxons started slow, trailing the Celtics 12-0 early into the second quarter, but from there scored eight unanswered touchdowns to run away for the victory.
South Salem senior quarterback Gabe Matthews led the comeback by throwing four touchdown passes to four different receivers and ran for two others.
With one more week remaining in the regular season, the Saxons (8-0), ranked No. 5 in the state, are 7-0 in conference play, a game ahead of second-place Sprague who they already defeated earlier in the season.
Matthews called winning back-to-back league championships a “great feeling”, but added that this Saxons team is looking for more.
“I’ve grown up with all these guys so it means a lot, but we’re not done,” Matthews said. “This is just one goal that we wanted to accomplish; we want to go as far as we can.”
Moments earlier Matthews and the rest of the team posed for photographs holding two fingers in the air in recognition of their conference dominance the past two years.
“Our coaches have been preaching all year how tough it is to repeat as league champions so this is a great feeling,” said Saxons senior Tony Phong, who caught one TD passes.
Phong’s touchdown catch for 46 yards with 2:51 remaining in the second quarter gave the Saxons their first lead of the game, 14-12, after McNary outplayed the hosts for the majority of the opening half.
The Celtics (4-4, 4-3) came into the game with a chance to lock up a playoff berth and in the early going looked like they were capable of pulling off the upset.
On McNary’s second possession of the game, Celtics senior quarterback Trent Van Cleave led a 64-yard scoring drive that ended with a 7-yard pass to Matt Aguilar in the end zone.
Brady Sparks converted a fourth-and-three from inside Saxons territory to keep the drive going for the Celtics. Sparks then made it 12-0 for the visitors on the next possession to begin the second quarter.
On third-and-9 from the Saxons’ 18, Van Cleave scrambled looking to pass before finding Sparks wide open in the left side of the field for an easy catch and score.
The touchdown left the home crowd temporarily stunned as to that point the Saxons offense had been held to just seven plays and 22 yards.
But the South Salem defense gave the Saxons the jolt of momentum they needed in the form of Gibson Hohberg.
With McNary looking to go up by three touchdowns, Van Cleave’s pass attempt was intercepted by Hohberg near midfield and returned to the Celtics’ 6 where two plays later Francisco Ramirez Perez put the Saxons on the scoreboard with a 1-yard run.
“They were coming after us the whole game and we just needed something to turn us around,” Hohberg said. “I was just in the right spot.”
A close game at halftime quickly turned into a blowout in the third quarter as the Saxons scored 21 points while amassing more than 200 yards to minus-16 for the Celtics.
South Salem took the kickoff to begin the third quarter and marched down the field in 12 plays with Matthews running in for the TD from 12 yards out.
Less than three minutes later, Matthews ran for his second score to extend the lead to 28-12.
After displaying his running ability, Matthews spent the remainder of the game showing why he’s one of the state’s top passers with three touchdown throws.
The first, a 67-yard bomb to Joseph Carey, closed out the third quarter. Then Matthews opened the final period with a 4-yarder to Carter Dorn and a precise 25-yard arc to Khalid Thomas.
The passes to Carey and Thomas were perfectly thrown balls, but the short one to Dorn was something that left everyone in the stadium shaking their head.
On the play, Matthews rolled out looking for a receiver but was hit by two McNary defenders. In the process of being dragged to the ground, Matthews spun backward and flung a no-look pass to Dorn who caught it and dived into the end zone.
“That might have been the worst throw I’ve made in a long time,” Matthews said with a smile. “I was trying to throwing the ball away and I got hit and the ball just landed in the right spot, I guess.”
For the second half, South Salem tallied 334 of their 444 yards of offense with Matthews finishing the night with 265 yards passing.