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Ouellette keeps North in the running

A lot of eyes will be focused on Churchill wingback Niles Mittasch Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium in Eugene when the Lancers meet North Medford in the semifinals of the Class 4A state football playoffs.

Kickoff is — p.m.

Mittasch is considered to be the top running back in the state and the senior speedster has the statistics to prove it: 1,520 yards rushing, 540 yards receiving and a staggering 39 touchdowns.

Many of the Pac-10 Conference schools are recruiting Mittasch and just this week the 6-foot, 190-pound senior received a call from Nebraska head coach Frank Solich.

While Mittasch is the lifeblood of the Churchill offense, North Medford tailback Phil Ouellette is quietly enjoying a big season of his own. Despite missing three games with a hamstring pull, Ouellette has amassed 1,009 yards, six touchdowns and is averaging an eye-catching 7.8 yards per carry.

Phil isn't a big guy but he's very strong for his size and he knows how to attack a defense, North Medford coach Rod Rumrey says of the 5-foot-7, 160-pound Ouellette. He breaks a lot of tackles. He has a knack for making something out of nothing.

Ouellette fumbled the ball away on his first carry as a sophomore two years ago against Klamath Union, but scampered 50 yards for a touchdown on his next attempt and has been darting, dancing, dashing and smashing his way through enemy defenses ever since.

Ouellette would surely have more yards if North Medford wasn't so deep at running back. Fullbacks Justin MacLauchlan and Curtis Stout have combined for more than 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, and backup tailback Manny Alegria has found his way onto the field as well.

Throw in quarterback Kevin Foreman, who has picked up 646 yards on the ground, and it's obvious the Tornado has enough running depth to field a track team.

But Ouellette is more than happy to share the load.

No one can key on any single individual and that just makes us tougher to defend, Ouellette says. I consider it a privilege to run the ball on this team. We've got probably the best offensive line in the state. Every game you know you?re going to get some big holes to run through.

Ouellette pulled his hamstring on a cold night in Klamath Falls on Oct. 20 during the Tornado's 64-6 victory over Klamath Union.

It happened on my first carry of the second half, Ouellette says. I went about 40 yards and was really striding out and then I felt it rip.

I knew it was bad.

Ouellette missed North Medford's final two regular-season victories over Grants Pass and Ashland and its first-round playoff win over Lincoln. He returned on Nov. 17 against Glencoe and it didn't take long for him to make an impact. On his first carry, Ouellette sped 56 yards up the middle to set up the Tornado's first touchdown. North Medford went on to a 30-13 victory.

It was so frustrating to be out, says Ouellette, who totaled 145 yards against Glencoe and had 106 yards and a touchdown during last week's 34-21 victory over Newberg that advanced North Medford into the semifinals and improved its record to 12-0. It was like being separated from your family. I still went to practice but it just wasn't the same.

It felt so good to make a big play on my first carry back. All my frustrations and emotions just exploded on that one carry.

As much as the Tornado missed Ouellette's physical presence, they missed his on-field passion even more.

Our senior class is pretty quiet as a group and Phil is definitely the inspirational leader, Rumrey says. He brings some fire into the huddle.

Ouellette is more than willing to take on the role.

Last year as a junior I was afraid to show my emotions but this year I'm letting it go, he says. It feels natural. I know some of the younger guys look up to me and I think it's important to be a senior leader.

Ouellette doesn't pretend to be the same caliber of back as Mittasch, and isn't one to seek attention or publicity.

I'm not trying to impress anyone — I just want the respect of my teammates, he says.

Along with his emotions and stats, he's got plenty of that.

Ouellette keeps North in the running