North Medford had already lost some of the mystique that comes with being the favorite to win the Southwest Conference boys soccer championship.

North Medford had already lost some of the mystique that comes with being the favorite to win the Southwest Conference boys soccer championship.

The Black Tornado dropped its league-opening match on Tuesday, and on Saturday faced defending champion South Eugene, the reputed lone challenger to its title aspirations.

North, however, wasted little time asserting itself, scoring a pair of startling goals in the first 41/2 minutes and cruising to a 3-1 victory over the Axemen.

"This was probably our most important game of the season," said senior midfielder Tyler Svitak, whose 45-yard free-kick howitzer put North up 2-0 with 35:31 still left in the 40-minute first half. "We needed some confidence after that Roseburg game (1-0 loss)."

In a preseason vote of the SWC coaches, the Tornado (2-3-1, 1-1 SWC) edged South Eugene by one point as the favorite.

A year ago, the Axemen went through the league undefeated and allowed only one goal. Saturday's setback marked the first in SWC history for the Eugene school.

"This helps us get back on track and gives us momentum for the season," said North senior goalkeeper Jace Snyder, who had another stellar outing. "We just have to keep our focus."

There was no lack of focus at the outset.

Before some fans settled into their seats at sunny Hoffbuhr Field, the Tornado attack was at full throttle.

Junior midfielder Jorge Maldonado raced up the right sideline and sent a beautiful cross into a pack of players in front of the Axeman goal. As quickly as his pass got there, senior defender Ricardo Riquelme lunged at it for a diving header, redirecting the ball sharply into the net.

All of 59 seconds had elapsed.

Soon after, Svitak lined up a free kick just inside midfield and near the right sideline. He aimed for the far post and was only slightly off target. Nevertheless, the shot had optimal trajectory and, stunningly, sailed into the net.

"I was pretty surprised," said Svitak, who has rebounded from a torn medial collateral knee ligament suffered during the ski season last winter. "When it came off my foot, I knew it would be a good shot. But I'm sure the keeper was more surprised than I was."

Jubilation over the fast start was tempered by some in the North camp for fear of complacency.

"Usually," said Tornado coach Matt Soper, "I don't like it when we come out in the first six minutes and have a two-goal lead against a team like that. There are more than 70 minutes left, and you're still trying to get in the flow of the game. But we came out in the second half like we started the first half, real strong.

"We played great as a unit in the second half. When we do that, we're very competitive."

South Eugene halved North's lead midway through the first half when a corner kick bounded unabated across the front of the goal before Andrew Meyer powered it past Snyder from point-blank range.

The Tornado didn't tack on its insurance goal until 10 minutes elapsed in the second half. Dustin Torrey, a junior forward, took a through ball on a breakaway and made an athletic move to get a shot off as South Eugene goalkeeper Evan Turner came out to meet him.

Torrey shot and jumped in one motion, hurdling the diving defender and seeing his shot find the net from 8 yards.

At the opposite end, Snyder made a number of fine stops — including two that ricocheted hard off his own teammates and might have been his most challenging plays. One he caught; the other, he made a diving, one-handed stab to deflect the ball over the crossbar.

"That was interesting," said Snyder of the potential own goals. "That doesn't happen that often."

North outshot South Eugene 11-8, and the visitors had a 6-5 edge in corner kicks.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com