Playing soccer has always been a special part of Humberto Alvarez's life, but it's certainly taken on an even greater meaning this year for the South Medford High standout.
One year ago, Alvarez changed his role from assists on the pitch to a much more important assist for his younger brother Marco, who was in his second year of battling lymphoma.
In hopes of making a difference, Humberto Alvarez underwent a bone marrow transplant for his brother last September at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland that cost him almost all of his junior season with the Panthers. The forward/midfielder returned just prior to the state playoffs but was not close to full strength and South made an early exit.
Alvarez said it took quite some time to recover from the procedure — longer than he was willing to give it — and that set him back a bit last year.
To harvest his bone marrow, which is the soft, fatty tissue inside bones, doctors made a few small incisions through the skin and stuck a hollow needle in the top of his pelvic bone and used an attached syringe to draw out the marrow.
"My back was just killing me for a while," Alvarez, 17, said of the area where the incisions were made. "I forced it too much early and I ended up hurting it more in the end."
For the 2012 campaign, Alvarez has had a renewed vitality for the game that he loves and is a main reason why South Medford maintains its playoff hopes heading into today's second-round game at Clackamas (14-1-1).
"I feel that it probably took him longer to get to full strength than maybe the doctors initially estimated," said Panthers head coach Dave Kaufman, "but I feel that he's probably at 100 percent strength now and he's had a strong, injury free and productive season for us for sure. He's been instrumental to our season; I'm definitely glad to have him back at full strength."
Alvarez has 10 goals and 11 assists for the Panthers, who finished second in the Southern Oregon Hybrid and are 11-3 overall.
The numbers, however, aren't as important as just the feeling he has being back to his old ways.
"Last year when I sat out I just wanted to get in there so bad," said Alvarez. "All that emotion I had last year, wanting to play so much, hopefully this year I've been able to use that. I try to give my all every time."
Even though the procedure and the lost time may have been painful, Alvarez was quick to point out it was all worth it to help Marco, who is 6 now.
"He's doing really good," Alvarez said with a smile. "He only goes once a month for checkups now and he's doing great."
That's music to everyone's ears, and now all thoughts can simply be on wrapping up Alvarez's prep soccer career in the best way possible.
"This year's definitely more special, especially since I missed my whole junior year," he said. "This is my senior year so, no matter what, it was going to be special but it's great how everything has worked out."
The Panthers finished ninth in the Class 6A power rankings, scoring 50 goals against 14 allowed, and will face the No. 8 team in Clackamas at 5 tonight for the right to advance to the state quarterfinals. The Three Rivers League champion has scored 46 goals and allowed 14 and has won seven straight games since a 3-2 loss to West Linn on Oct. 2.
Alvarez scored a goal in last year's playoffs before the Panthers were eliminated by McMinnville in the second round. He led the team in scoring with 14 goals and six assists as a sophomore, and also played a key role during South Medford's run to the state finals in 2009 — when the Panthers finished third in their conference but put it all together in the playoffs.
"I think we have a pretty good chance this year," said Alvarez. "If we keep playing well then I think we've got a shot."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry