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Black Tornado hangs tough

In almost poetic fashion, just as North Medford appeared to be letting a chance at the state playoffs slip through its hands Friday night, senior Jakob Altamirano came up with the catch of a lifetime to rally his football team.

With time running out and the Black Tornado in need of a big play, Altamirano provided it with a twisting one-handed grab and run for a 41-yard touchdown that gave his team a 19-14 lead over Grants Pass with 6:42 to play at Spiegelberg Stadium.

North Medford's defense held firm after that, with Steven Petersen hauling in his second interception of the game to salt away the victory and allow the Tornado to secure its first trip to the playoffs since 2005.

"It's been way too long," said North Medford head coach Jeff Olson. "The playoffs don't start next week and our kids have to get ready to play (Roseburg), but I am so very happy and proud of our kids. They have persevered through a lot to get the program back on track."

The Black Tornado improved to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in Southwest Conference play, with Roseburg (6-2, 3-1) coming to town next Friday to cap the regular season. Since Grants Pass (2-7, 0-4) and South Eugene (4-4, 0-4) each remained winless in SWC play, North is assured at least the league's No. 4 playoff spot.

Another home win against the Indians — the hottest team in the SWC outside of top-ranked Sheldon (8-0, 4-0) — could force a tiebreaker and potentially allow the Tornado to improve on its standing.

"Just to know that we have the (playoff) spot clinched right now, words can't even describe how I feel right now," said Altamirano, who finished with two catches for 76 yards. "Especially as a senior and this being my last year at North, it's just amazing."

The situation looked bleak after the gritty Cavemen turned a 13-0 deficit into a 14-13 lead thanks to a third-quarter surge that included a 24-yard touchdown run by John Tardieu and a 34-yard scoring effort by Jordy Romick two minutes later.

It took a series before North was able to get over the shock, but the Tornado was able to regroup with a steady drive to open the fourth quarter.

The local boys marched from their own 20-yard line to the Grants Pass 37 before being turned back by a great second-down surge from Tardieu and Jose Cruz that resulted in a 4-yard loss by tailback Hector Alvarez.

Facing a third-and-12 at the GP 41, quarterback Brian Reese dialed up a pass play toward Altamirano that was tipped downfield by safety Trevor Macy. With his body still moving upfield, a twisting Altamirano reached back and got his right hand on the ball, flicking it back toward his chest for an improbable reception in front of cornerback Todd Woodrum.

"We had a deep route called, one of my favorite routes to run," said Altamirano. "I ran it as crisp as I could. The ball came out a little short and the kid had a hand on it. I just went up and tried to make a play and had an extra hand there to give it to me."

Once the ball was secured, it didn't take the 6-foot-1 receiver long to figure out what to do with it.

"It was just end zone," added Altamirano. "End zone, end zone, end zone. That's all that was running through my head."

No defender came close as he streaked to pay dirt, giving the Tornado sideline a huge shot in the arm.

"I was the happiest man; I couldn't believe it," Reese said of his second TD pass of the game. "I just saw him reach back and the ball popped up ... Jakob Altamirano just made a great play."

Reese's two-point conversion run was stopped short by GP's Ronnie Fields, putting the burden on North Medford's defense to keep the Cavemen out of the end zone over the final 61/2 minutes.

A spinning Romick carried his team to a key first down on a fourth-and-two play, but he was hit hard at the end of the run and had to be helped off the field for the second time in the game. Backup quarterback Eric Patterson completed a pair of passes to get GP to the North Medford 48 with 1:26 to go, but the Cavemen were called for a false start to move back across the field.

Romick returned on second-and-15 and completed a pass to Tardieu despite being leveled by Cory Haggans and Mark Dickison. The gutty senior had to be helped off the field again, and Patterson's next pass from the North 45 led to a 7-yard loss as Haggans sniffed out a throwback screen to Woodrum.

Facing fourth-and-15, Patterson threw deep toward Fields but Petersen came up with the ball to secure the victory. Petersen also picked off Patterson when he came on in relief of an injured Romick in the second quarter.

"The third quarter we executed real well and came to play that third quarter," said Romick, who ran for 80 yards and threw for 110 more. "If we put together four quarters of football we're looking pretty good this game, but that's the way the season's been. Hats off to North Medford, they played a great game and we just didn't get the job done when we needed to. Hopefully they do well in the playoffs."

North Medford built a 10-0 lead in the first half behind a 35-yard field goal from Scott Higgins and a 51-yard TD pass from Reese to Jeremy Scottow, who took a simple screen pass in the right flat and picked up a crushing block from Haggans that cleared his path to the end zone.

Higgins' 28-yard field goal capped the Tornado's initial drive after halftime, but the 13-0 lead wasn't enough to put Grants Pass away.

"I was nervous," Olson said of controlling the game but having little to show for it on the scoreboard. "Hats off to (GP coach John Musser) and the Grants Pass kids and their coaching staff. I knew they'd come ready to play. Their season was on the line because if they win they have a shot at the playoffs."

"Our character showed again when Grants Pass had the momentum after making some nice adjustments to take the lead," added Olson. "Our kids found a way to win. With the exception of the Sheldon game this year, we've given ourselves a chance to win every week."

And thanks to a little good fortune, North's now given itself at least one more week in the season.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

North Medford's Steven Peterson returns the ball after intercepting a pass against Grants Pass on Friday. - Jamie Lusch