Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
Softball coaches in the Southern Oregon Hybrid can't exactly sleep easy at the thought of facing North Medford, but at least one consistent nightmare has been put to bed.
Her name is Maryssa Becker.
The dominant pitcher graduated and plays at Louisville now.
"I personally think anybody can beat anybody on any given day now," Roseburg head coach Tony Campos said. "It makes it a little more even."
That said, Campos and the rest of the SOH leaders voted the Black Tornado as the unanimous favorites to claim a fifth straight league crown. Roseburg was second and Grants Pass third, followed by Crater and South Medford.
The top three from the SOH automatically qualify for the 32-team state bracket, with the remaining teams getting play-in contests.
Defending Class 6A state champion North has six returning starters, including 2012 conference player of the year Joci Ellis (a senior shortstop), senior catcher Katie Ramsay, senior second baseman Maddie Gates, junior right fielder Grace Jovanovic and senior center fielder Keisha Williams. All those players have received all-league recognition.
That sixth returner? Senior pitcher Alexis Barkwell, who made the most of her opportunities behind Becker last year en route to second-team all-league honors.
Ninth-year head coach Mike Mayben said Barkwell is up for the challenge of being the new ace.
"She is really focused this year," Mayben said. "I think she is excited about it."
Replacing Becker's leadership is just as big a task as replacing her powerful pitching and hitting, Mayben added.
"What a lot of people don't realize is what an incredible leadership quality she brought," he said. "That is what we are looking for more than anything, someone to step up and replace that leadership. We have a number of kids who are looking to do that."
The Black Tornado added three 5A SOH all-league transfers to the mix in senior Megan Cowden (Eagle Point), junior Christina Kuykendall (Ashland) and junior Janelle Rodgers (Eagle Point).
Senior infielder Sarah Koistinen, sophomore infielder Gabby Rosales, sophomore outfielder Tra Kucera, sophomore outfielder Cassie Campbell and sophomore pitcher Sarah Thomas could also chip in for North, which finished 29-2 last spring. Mayben and his staff will use much of the nonconference season to pin down starters at first base, third base and left field, he said. Rodgers, Koistinen and Thomas are candidates for the spot at first; Kuykendall, Cowden and Rosales for third; and Cowden, Kuykendall and Kucera for the space in left.
"We have a very veteran group up the middle," Mayben said. "We have a really solid group defensively."
Ellis is the team's leadoff hitter, with Gates, Jovanovic, Ramsay, Barkwell and Williams also bringing plenty of expertise to the plate.
At Roseburg, the Indians return starters Jacey Conklin (junior third baseman), Jessa Perkinson (senior center fielder), Baylee Wyscaver (sophomore second baseman) and Chelsey Luiz (senior left fielder).
Sophomore right-hander Ashley Martin takes over as the squad's ace for Makinna Akers, who graduated.
The Indians, who advanced to the 6A semifinals last season, also graduated shortstop Megan Larkin, last year's SOH player of the year.
At Grants Pass, junior Amy Robinson is the team's starting pitcher and will be backed by returners Nicole Godwin (junior third baseman), Halee Rose (junior second baseman) and Jadyn Lenard (senior third baseman/outfielder). Other returners include senior catcher Aleah Stevens, junior shortstop/pitcher Taylor Thomas, versatile junior Stephanie Norrick and sophomore outfielder Dalenna Bellum.
At Central Point, the Comets bring in a sophomore-heavy group with some experience.
Senior shortstop Alex Craft and senior first baseman Dana Lowder are the team's top two hitters. Junior Brie Sheperd (third base, designated hitter) and senior catcher Bri Doggett also return.
Crater is going with three sophomore pitchers: Brittany Hassel, Sydney Beck and Tristin Fisher.
Comets senior outfielder Athena Espinosa had ACL surgery and moved to Sandy last year, but is back. She was the team's starting center fielder and leadoff hitter before suffering the knee injury in Crater's season opener last year.
"We have a lot of positions to fill," Crater head coach Chris Arnold said.
At South Medford, what was once a collection of inexperienced players has evolved into a group with some know-how. The team's returning starters are senior catcher/shortstop Tia Garrett, senior outfielder Sara Gartlan, senior center fielder/shortstop Brittany Miller, junior second baseman/pitcher Rachael Moore, junior pitcher/infielder Hannah Newman and junior outfielder Krystal Williams.
Senior infielder Liz DeVaughn didn't play last year but has experience at third base.
Newman recorded the most innings in the circle last spring, with freshman lefty Pat Moore and Rachael Moore also ready.
The outfield starters are still being finalized, head coach Miranda Gillaspie-Smith said.
"We had maybe two kids last year who had any varsity experience," Gillaspie-Smith said. "We are out of that situation now."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt