When first formed last season, the Southwest Conference immediately became a major player on the Oregon state high school volleyball scene.

When first formed last season, the Southwest Conference immediately became a major player on the Oregon state high school volleyball scene.

Expect much of the same, if not more, from the fledgling league. And, according to the conference coaches, assume North Medford will be ahead of the field.

The Black Tornado received five of the six first-place votes to claim the top spot. Sheldon, last year's SWC winner, took home the other first-place vote and is picked to finish as runner-up, while Roseburg was tabbed third, Grants Pass fourth, South Medford fifth and South Eugene sixth.

"It's going to be North Medford in a runaway," says Roseburg coach Bruce Myers. "They are one of the top three teams in the state, if not the best in the state."

Conference play begins tonight with all six teams in action.

Fifth-ranked North Medford hosts Sheldon, Roseburg is at South Medford and Grants Pass visits South Eugene. All matches start at 7 p.m.

North Medford, which finished second in the SWC and took a school-record third place at last year's state tournament, returns plenty of depth, experience and a chest full of weapons to navigate a challenging SWC landscape.

"The league should be very competitive," says Tornado coach Ron Beick. "You want your league to challenge everybody and have every night be a key match. There are no easy matches out there. That's what I like about our conference."

The Black Tornado lost some key components to graduation, most notably 6-foot-2 all-state middle hitter Lauren Berger, who is now playing at Fresno State.

But what returns for North makes up the most balanced and physically imposing team in the SWC.

"The senior group we have now has played quite a bit together," says Beick. "We have a lot of depth this year.

"We're probably better balanced (than last year) and we have more weapons."

Leading the lanky unit will be senior 6-foot middle Megan Bartling, junior Jaci Abeloe and senior middle Kyle Jolley.

On the outsides, senior first-team all-stater Whitney Hodnett and senior Erica Schultz, both all-SWC competitors, return to complete a power-packed front four.

McKenzie Smith and Natalie Lorenz fill out the setter positions in North's formation.

Defensively, a new blocking scheme implemented last season is now starting to take hold.

"The high school season is so short, so this is the second year we've been working on it," says Beick. "Even though we were pretty successful running it last year, we expect it to be better this year."

South Medford also welcomes its most experienced crew in three years.

The Panthers, who slipped into the fourth and final state-playoff spot out of the SWC last season, have nine seniors on the roster, including two three-year varsity players.

"We have a group this year that has a real positive energy," says Panther coach Adam Wagman. "This team really seems to enjoy playing together."

Senior middle hitter Tori Glover (5-11) leads the South Medford list of returners, with Lauren Thompson also coming back at middle.

Seniors Kinzie Towry, Carli Sash and Courtney Guches line up on the outside, while fellow seniors Sara George and Chelsie Note will play setter and libero, respectively.

Callie McCoy, a defensive specialist, could also see significant time.

"We're not extremely tall but we have good quickness," says Wagman, whose tallest player is Glover.

The Panthers hope to again contend for a playoff spot.

"Last year we won only four conference matches and got in," Wagman says. "It really comes down to winning when you have the chance."

Hoping to contend for the SWC crown will be Sheldon and Roseburg.

The Irish welcome back nine varsity players, led by first-team all-SWC competitors Hannah Thompson (DS) and Alex Strahan (setter).

Sheldon, however, lost SWC coach of the year Cathy Nelson, who left the team in the offseason. Kandice Feola, a 2003 Creswell graduate, has stepped in to replace Nelson.

Roseburg and Grants Pass also figure to be in the playoff mix.

The Cavers, under the tutelage of Stacy Yarrish, could be the most improved squad in the SWC a year after going 0-8 in conference matches.

Grants Pass returns four seniors, including standout outside hitter Chelsey Chamberlain.

"She's a tremendous leader," says Yarrish. "She's our go-to girl. It's kind of like, how she goes, we go."

Only two starters are back for Roseburg, but the Indians still have plenty of talent to vie for a conference title.

Returning starters Anna Palotai (senior setter) and Katelyn Powers (junior outside) will line up alongside Stefanie Jarvis (senior rightside), Nikki Bassett (junior libero), Katrina Lines (senior middle) and Jade Berry-Cabiao (senior middle) to form a strong starting unit.

South Eugene, which finished fifth in the SWC a year ago, will field a talented but inexperienced lineup.

Middle hitter Kelly Keurlychek and setter Gabby Pelayl are the lone returning starters.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com