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Finishing Strong

It may not have been the kind of start to his senior season Jakob Altamirano had hoped for, but the ending has been nothing short of perfect for the North Medford wide receiver.

Forced to sit out the Black Tornado's first three games of the season as discipline for what Altamirano describes as "making dumb teenager decisions," he's certainly made up for time lost with his play over the past few weeks. The 5-foot-11, 165-pounder has hauled in touchdown passes for four straight games entering Friday's game at Canby in the opening round of the Class 6A football state playoffs.

"It's just been an up-and-down season but since conference play started, I've felt like I've been on top of my game and doing whatever I could do to help the team," says Altamirano, 18. "I got myself into a little bit of trouble over the summer before the season had started and since then it's just been all uphill to work back from that and to earn the coaches' trust back. It's been really awesome for me, personally, to get to where I am today."

No one is more pleased with Altamirano's ability to turn things around than North Medford head coach Jeff Olson, who says the returning starter paved his way back into the lineup through hard work and dedication to his team.

"He paid the price but he has worked very hard to regain the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches," says the coach. "He waited his turn and pushed himself and earned the right to get back on the field."

"Really it's a life lesson," adds Olson, "to handle adversity and good things can still happen if you don't give up. I'm just very pleased with his progress from the start of the year."

Altamirano returned to the field when the Black Tornado played at Crater on Oct. 4, but things really began to click once the Southwest Conference season opened a week later. He began his touchdown streak with a first-quarter slant against South Medford on Oct. 16, then reached the end zone in consecutive weeks to close the regular season against Sheldon, Grants Pass and Roseburg.

Overall, Altamirano has hauled in 16 passes for 227 and four scores in six games.

"I've learned that I'm capable of a lot more than I thought I was," he says of his growth this fall. "I never really used to look at myself as one of those big playmakers and then to come back and I've scored in almost every game is just amazing to me. Just to know that now I'm looked at by the rest of my teammates and coaches as a key guy they can go to if they needed to in a game ... for me it just makes my whole senior year experience a really good one."

There was a little clue Altamirano had the ability within him after two of his five catches a year ago went for touchdowns. Still, few could've imagined he'd be doing what he is today.

"It's something we preach, that when you get the chance to take advantage of it and he's proven that he can make things happen," says Olson. "I'm very happy for him in the way he's finishing his senior year."

Altamirano and fellow senior Steven Petersen had been pegged as the Tornado's top receivers heading into the season, but a broken hand sustained by Petersen slowed his progress and a broken clavicle suffered last week has stopped it altogether. Cory Haggans, Jeremy Scottow and Fiki Silafau stepped up in their place early this season and have shouldered the load, but Altamirano's resurgence has given the group a newfound energy.

Haggans leads the crew with 36 receptions for 605 yards and five TDs, while Scottow has pulled in 32 passes for 326 yards and three scores and Silafau has added 26 catches for 292 yards and one TD.

"It just makes our offense that much more dangerous because it just puts another guy in our passing game that we can go to," says Altamirano. "It's definitely helped having all of us out there."

The Tornado is certainly much less predictable. Haggans was the leading receiver in the SWC at one point but hasn't caught a pass or really been targeted in the past two weeks. The tight end, however, was key in springing Scottow for a touchdown and a couple big gains two weeks ago with his solid blocking. He also sat out the bulk of last week's game with an injury, but has no qualms with Altamirano and the others taking center stage in recent weeks.

"We've got a lot of other players stepping up so it's fine with me," says Haggans. "Everyone wants the football, but if other people are making plays then I have no problem dealing with it."

Each receiver boasts a different quality, with Altamirano maybe not having the foot speed of some but making up for that with his sure-handed ways.

"He's not a guy that can run away from a lot of people but he's certainly a guy that can catch the ball and keep the chains moving for us," says Olson.

The biggest example of that came during the 19-14 win over Grants Pass two weeks ago, when Altamirano one-handed a tipped pass by quarterback Brian Reese and then turned the remarkable reception into a game-winning 41-yard TD. That play not only won the game, it earned North Medford its first trip to the state playoffs since 2005.

Few things have made Altamirano more excited — or proud — this season.

"It's just exciting to know that I'm part of the senior class that brought the Black Tornado tradition back into the playoffs," he says.

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

North Medford senior Jakob Altamirano has caught a touchdown in each of the last four games entering Friday's playoff contest against Canby. - MT file photo