North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
Nice guys don't always finish last. Mike Mayben's a nice guy, and he's making a habit of finishing first.
One of the most affable softball head coaches around (just ask anybody in the sports community), North Medford's leader has guided the Black Tornado to three straight Southern Oregon conference titles. North captured the Class 6A state championship in 2012 and, by the look of things, should be right back in the hunt for its third crown in five seasons.
Three Southern Oregon Hybrid coaches voted the Black Tornado as their pick to finish first in the five-team league, with Roseburg garnering a pair of first-place votes to come in second in the poll. Grants Pass was third, Crater fourth and South Medford last. If the voting holds true, the Cavers, Comets and Panthers will all be contending for the chance to automatically qualify for the 32-team state bracket as the conference's third-place squad.
League action kicks off right away with Crater at Grants Pass and Roseburg at South Medford today.
North is favored for many reasons, perhaps most notably because of powerful senior pitcher Maryssa Becker. The Louisville-bound standout is dynamite in the circle and at the plate.
Becker, the returning 6A state pitcher of the year, tossed a four-hitter with 15 strikeouts to help defeat South Salem 3-0 in the state final.
"(Becker) is not only getting more and more incredible as a pitcher, she is — holy cow — she is never resting on her laurels," Crater's 12th-year head coach Chris Arnold said. "That is one of the reasons she is great."
Beyond Becker stands a cast of talent that would make the VIP list of any SOH party: junior shortstop Joci Ellis (the returning conference player of the year), senior catcher Katie Williamson (a first-team league selection), sophomore right fielder Grace Jovanovic (first-team league) and junior third baseman/catcher Katie Ramsay (a first-team league pick at South Medford last year).
The Black Tornado graduated several major contributors — center fielder Sierra Berryessa, second baseman Hannah Leming, left fielder Marissa Gann and first baseman Kelsie Bartley — but found capable replacements to round out the starting nine in junior Keisha Williams, junior Maddie Gates, senior Michelle Draper and junior Alexis Barkwell (a transfer from southern California who also pitches).
At the helm is Mayben, who guided the squad to a 29-1 record in his seventh season last spring.
"We can't fill the shoes of the kids who left, but there are kids who can definitely be impact players for us," he said. "But can we fill the leadership we lost? So far we've seen some things from the kids. ... That is easy to do through the first month or so, but it's when you start playing in the middle of May when all of that is tested."
Mayben said the 2013 version of the program has added speed and hitting depth.
"Our depth of hitting is rich at any given time," Mayben said, noting that Ellis' mastery as a left-handed slapper typifies North's abundance of weapons. "We have probably more depth in our lineup than the year before."
Barkwell, North's starter at first base and second option in the circle, transferred from Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego. Williams was a utility player last year and will be in the outfield for the first time, while Ramsay — a cog for the Panthers in 2012 — will start at third base and can also catch to take some of the load off of Williamson.
At Roseburg, future Boston University pitcher Makinna Akers (who was 15-8 last season as a junior) heads an experienced group that includes catcher Jacey Conklin, third baseman Megan Larkin, second baseman Sydney Reynolds and designated hitter Allyssa Hunt. The Indians came within an out of stunning North in the second round of the playoffs in 2012.
"I think Roseburg could give (North) a run for their money," South Medford third-year coach Miranda Gillaspie-Smith said. "They are always going to compete. At the same time, you know Maryssa will get after it."
At Grants Pass, the Cavers return all-league honorees Aleah Stevens (catcher), Amy Robinson (the team's ace), Halee Rose (second baseman) and Stephanie Norrick (pitcher/outfielder).
Sadie Zozaya (shortstop/second baseman) is one of two seniors on the team along with outfielder Bailey Bradbury. Sophomore third baseman Nicole Godwin and Rogue River transfer Danielle Taylor (a first baseman/outfielder) are two of the squad's strongest hitters, second-year head coach Donnie Bellum said.
"We have a majority of freshmen and sophomores again," Bellum said. "They are not super tested yet."
At Central Point, the Comets lost a load of key players like Kenzie Rohde, Rachel Ray, Renee Murphy, Caitlyn Medina, Haley Fox and Kassi Murphy, but return all-league players Malorie Mitchell (a senior shortstop and first-team selection), Allie Winningham (a senior outfielder) and Katie Britton (a senior catcher/first baseman). Junior outfielder Athena Espinosa hurt her knee in a game against Sheldon and is out indefinitely, but Arnold labeled her as one of the team's top offensive threats before the injury.
Crater will use senior Alex Sheperd, sophomore Olivia Ryerson (who went undefeated as a junior varsity pitcher) and three freshmen in the circle.
At South Medford, the young Panthers have an almost completely new starting squad after seeing Ramsay transfer and graduating all-league players Kylee Nunez, Ricki Tacdol, Sam Owirka and Olivia Beamish-White. Last spring's group went 6-17 and took last place in the league.
Sophomore pitcher/first baseman Hannah Newman, sophomore pitcher Rachael Moore and senior first baseman/outfielder Hayley Tyus all come back with at least some starting experience. Newman and Moore will be South's hurlers.
The Panthers gained a solid player in Eagle Point transfer Tia Garrett, a junior catcher and shortstop.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com