The journey is long and the climb steep if the North Medford volleyball team is to return to the Class 6A state tournament. But at least the faces across the net will be familiar ones.

The journey is long and the climb steep if the North Medford volleyball team is to return to the Class 6A state tournament. But at least the faces across the net will be familiar ones.

The Black Tornado, who came within a single match of capturing the school's first state championship last autumn, gets a rematch with defending state champion and second-ranked West Linn when the 6A playoffs open tonight in the Portland suburbs.

"We have nothing to lose," all-Southwest Conference outside hitter Jaci Abeloe says. "We're the underdog. All we can do is play our hardest."

Also tonight, Crater hosts South Albany of the Mid-Willamette Conference in a Class 5A first-round match in Central Point.

On Saturday, Southern Sky Conference champion Ashland and runner-up Eagle Point, Sunset League champ Cascade Christian, Southern Cascade League runner-up St. Mary's and Mountain Valley League winner Prospect open the playoffs.

Few teams at any classification can rival North Medford's model of consistency over the past two decades. The Black Tornado has made the playoffs every year since 1989, including all 15 under coach Ron Beick. It has been to the state tournament 10 times since 1990, including four of the last five years.

But graduation took its toll, robbing the team of seven seniors from last season and leaving a new group of players to find themselves in the tough Southwest Conference. The result was a 14-14 overall record and a fourth-place finish, earning them the matchup with West Linn.

"We've been up and down," Beick says. "We've played some great matches and turned around and played some poor ones."

Four times since 1996, West Linn has ended North's season. It was two years ago, however, that North traveled to West Linn and upset the Lions in five games en route to third place at state.

"We went up there and knew it was going to be a tough fight," says Abeloe, a sophomore at the time. "Nobody expected us to win and we came back."

The Lions (22-4) didn't drop a game in the Three Rivers League and are currently ranked behind only Jesuit.

"This West Linn team is a significantly better team (than two years ago)," Beick says. "It's the one that won state last year, and all those kids return."

"It helps us because we've seen them. We know what they do, we know how they serve. The pro and con is we never played them in any of the tournaments. We've watched them play, but we've never played them."

The Tornado has embraced the role of underdogs this week, believing an upset is again possible.

"I know this team is capable of that," Beick says. "It would have to be our best match of the season, even to give us a shot. We know what our weaknesses are and, hopefully, we know how to play around them."

Class 5A

While North is a perennial playoff participant, Crater and Eagle Point are each hoping this season's success can be a springboard to building such a program.

Crater's last won a state playoff match in 2002. Its most recent postseason trip ended with a three-game loss to eventual state champion Crook County two years ago.

"Crater hasn't had the best program the last few years," second-year coach Kristina Alvarez says. "If these girls can pull out a win, they're going in the right direction."

The Comets (5-6) started strong, but have dropped five of their last six heading into tonight's match with South Albany (7-7), the third-place finisher in the Mid-Willamette Conference. The winner gets the tall task of facing top-ranked Crook County in Prineville on Saturday.

Junior Taylor Mackey has been the Comets' most consistent attacker and led the team with 16 kills in Monday's loss to Eagle Point.

The Eagles, who have won four straight matches to earn the No. 2 seed from the Southern Sky Conference, are seeking their first playoff win since a 2003 state tournament appearance when they travel to Springfield to meet Thurston (9-6) on Saturday at 7.

The team got a boost when senior outside hitter Erin Hedrick returned to the lineup eight matches ago after missing three weeks with a left ankle injury. Hedrick had a team-high 13 kills in Monday's win over Crater, giving her 47 in her last three matches.

"We're getting better every day in practice," says Rob Kleker, the Eagles' fifth head coach in as many seasons. "I think we have a good shot at Thurston."

Neither Eagle Point nor Crater could take even a game off of SSC champion Ashland in four meetings. Led by the powerful frontcourt duo of seniors Taylor Hartrick and Asia Kane, the second-ranked Grizzlies (20-11-1) haven't lost a nontournament match since early September. Ashland is in the playoffs for the 20th time in 21 years.

The Grizzlies have their sights set on a rematch with two-time defending 5A champion Crook County, which beat them in last year's semifinals. Before that, however, they'll have to fend off a stiff challenge from third-ranked Pendleton. The Buckaroos (16-4) finished second to Crook County in the Intermountain Conference, thus drawing the short straw and nine-hour bus ride to the Rogue Valley for Saturday's 4 p.m. second-round match.

"I think we're right on track," Ashland coach Jodee Scott says. "You judge a season by a lot of different things. You don't remember your won-loss record, but you remember how your season felt."

Class 3A/2A/1A

There has been no shortage of good feelings at Cascade Christian, St. Mary's and Prospect.

Led by junior outside hitter Becca Sellers, Cascade Christian (16-4-3) was undefeated in the Sunset League and is out to better last year's showing, when it blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Creswell in the quarterfinals.

The Challengers will host the No. 3 seed from the Lewis and Clark Conference on Saturday at 7 at The Pavilion.

St. Mary's finished second behind Bonanza in the Southern Cascade League and will host the second-place team from the Tri-Rivers Conference, which had not been determined at press time.

Led by Mountain Valley League player of the year Becky Musard, Prospect (16-0) raced through its conference season without being tested. The Cougars will host the winner of today's first-round match between North Clackamas Christian and Jewell.