North Medford appears primed for another softball playoff run.
The Black Tornado returns the pitcher and player of the year and is a unanimous choice to repeat as the Southern Oregon Hybrid champion.
Regardless, coach Mike Mayben refuses to look too far down the road.
Two close home playoff losses the past two seasons tend to lend perspective.
"Losing in the quarterfinals two years in a row at home puts a sour taste in your mouth," said the seventh-year head coach. "We ran into a really quality team last year and they definitely earned the win. I felt good about the way our kids played and competed in that game and gave everything they had. We know that once you make it past the play-in game, anything can happen."
North Medford was ousted 2-1 by Century last season and the year before was beaten 4-1 in eight innings by Central Catholic.
Those playoff losses came on the heels of the 2009 state championship.
The Black Tornado, which has made it to the postseason the past five years, was 14-2 in the SOH and 24-4 overall in 2011.
It returns two first-team all-league pitchers in Maryssa Becker — the pitcher of the year — and Kelsie Bartley along with player of the year Sierra Berryessa, an outfielder who has signed to play collegiately at the University of San Diego.
"Our pitching has the potential to lead us a long way and deep into the playoffs," said Mayben. "But we learned the last two years the ball has to bounce your way. And you're going to face some phenomenal pitching once you get to the quarters."
Crater, which returns last season's other first-team pitcher in Renee Murphy, is predicted to place second, followed closely by Roseburg, which advanced to the state semifinals last year before also losing the Century, the eventual state champion.
Grant Pass and South Medford are picked to finish fourth and fifth.
The SOH season is scheduled to begin today, although rain is in the forecast. Only three nonconference games have managed to get played since the spring season opened last Monday.
In today's contests, Grants Pass, which split a doubleheader with West Albany on Saturday, is at Crater, and South Medford visits Roseburg. Both games are at 4:30 p.m.
North Medford, which owns a victory over Henley, is host to North Eugene in a nonconference doubleheader that begins at 11:30 a.m. today. The Black Tornado opens league with a twin bill against Grants Pass Saturday.
The SOH shapes up as one of the strongest conferences in the state, said Roseburg coach Tony Campos, because it has three of Oregon's best pitchers in Becker, Murphy and his own Makinna Akers.
"I like our league better than any other in the state and I always have," he said.
Crater's Chris Arnold won't argue.
"The number of kids who graduated wasn't great," he said, adding that the pitching is again top-notch. "That translates into so much success for our league."
For North Medford, the junior Becker and senior Bartley present a formidable one-two punch. They alternated games for the most part last season and will do so again, and each will play first base when not in the circle.
"I never experienced that until last year," Mayben said of having two dominant hurlers. "Usually, you have one kid. Most high school teams only have one kid. I'm most impressed with how they've handled it. Innately, pitchers are a little selfish. They want the ball. They want to be in the circle. Both kids have embraced the idea that this is a team sport and they want to do what's best for the team."
Becker was 13-2 last season. More of a power pitcher than Bartley, she struck out 130 batters in 98 innings and had a 1.14 ERA. She walked 21.
Bartley, 11-2 a year ago, had a 1.41 ERA in 84 innings. She has a lot of movement on her pitches and likes to work in and out on hitters, setting them up from one pitch to the next. She fanned 102 and walked 15.
Berryessa hit .443 last season, with 20 RBIs, 10 doubles and 19 stolen bases. She's a threat to drive the ball to an outfield gap or lay down a bunt and "beat you with her feet," said Mayben.
Becker, who was an SOH first-team infielder as well, batted .452, and Bartley was at .346.
Senior second baseman Hannah Leming, whom Mayben called the "heart of our team," hit .296 with five doubles in 2011.
Crater brings back seven starters from an SOH runner-up team that went 17-10 overall and lost in the second round of the playoffs.
Murphy is the key component.
"She brings confidence," said Arnold. "She definitely is a leader by example. She worked hard in the offseason, and the gains she made as a pitcher, in addition to developing her pitches, dealt more with the mental aspects of pitching and her approach to setting up hitters. She's a thinker. She likes to engage in that part of the competition with opponents."
Left-handed slap hitter Rachel Ray ignites the offense at the top of the order and shortstop Malorie Mitchell provides pop. Other top hitters are Renee and Kassi Murphy, Kenzie Rohde and Haley Fox.
Mitchell, Fox and Ray are returning first-teamers as well.
At Grants Pass, Donnie Bellum takes over as head coach after years as an assistant in the program.
The Cavers return six starters, including third baseman Rashaun Sells, who made the first team last season as a utility player and designated hitter.
She's a four-year varsity starter and was part of Grants Pass' 2010 state championship team. GP also won it all in 2008.
"We're pretty young," said Bellum. "We have some freshmen who will have to step up and contribute."
South Medford returns eight players with starting experience, but coach Miranda Gillaspie-Smith still must figure out her pitching rotation. Kylee Nunez is the No. 1 starter, taking over for last year's main arm, Lucy Baldovino, who graduated. Juniors Kelcee Jones and Hayley Tyus will also get their turns on the mound.
The Panthers expect to have a strong defense, with Ricki Tacdol moving from shortstop to third base to take advantage of her speed.
"You have to be able to cover a bunt in this game," said Gillaspie-Smith. "That's just a given."
Sam Owirka moves from center field to shortstop, and catcher Katie Ramsay is solid behind the plate.
Tacdol, Owirka and Ramsay — all second-teamers last year — will also lead the offense.
South Medford lost five one-run games a year ago.
"It was brutal," said Gillaspie-Smith. "We need to put up the offensive numbers to take a little pressure off our defense and pitchers. We showed last year we can compete with everybody."
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org