The target is as big as ever and North Medford has taken notice.

The target is as big as ever and North Medford has taken notice.

"We pretty much got a target on our back," senior goalkeeper Kendra McMillen says. "People are out to get us because they know that we are good."

Forgive McMillen if she sounds a little paranoid, but in reality, the Black Tornado is one of the teams to beat in the Southwest Conference, which begins play on Saturday.

And of all the ways to kick off its defense of the conference title, North Medford plays at rival South Medford at 1 p.m.

"South is one of the games we always look forward to," senior midfielder McKenna Storey says. "That's the one, we've got to have it. We've got to be on that day."

The Black Tornado players are ready for a physical game, the type where cool-headed, experienced athletes will prevail. And that is exactly what North Medford has on its roster.

Seven starters return from last season's squad, which claimed the Southwest Conference with a 7-2-1 record and eventually lost to Oregon City, 3-2, in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

That heartbreaking end to the season is part of the motivation for the six current seniors, who have never finished worse than second place in the conference but haven't advanced beyond the second round of the state playoffs.

"Definitely one of our goals is to make it past the second round," Storey says. "We kinda haven't really showed up for the second-round game. We're not going to settle for anything less."

Rich Garcia, who was an assistant with the program for the past three seasons and coached the North Medford boys from 1992 until 2005, has taken over the head coaching duties.

McMillen and Storey are also four-year starters, and sophomore forward Sarah Chambers returns to give the offense a boost. Chambers, who was the team's leading scorer last season, has scored four goals in four nonconference games this season.

Those three earned all-league honors last season along with returning teammates Kate Folsom, a senior forward, and Alex Kummer, a junior defender.

"The core of the kids are back," Garcia says. "I expect us to be up there. If not conference champs, right up there 1-2."

South Medford

It isn't easy communicating with a high school girl, let alone a team of teenagers.

Especially when those girls are trying to become comfortable with each other, which is the task at South Medford.

After graduating 11 players last season, when the Panthers tied Sheldon for second in the conference at 7-3-0 and lost to eventual state runner-up Westview in the quarterfinals, South Medford returns only five varsity athletes — three starters.

"Rebuilding from a sense of trying to find out where everyone fits into the puzzle," coach Terry Fretz says. "As far as skill level, athletic ability, we're right there.

"(We need better) communication amongst each other on the field. It comes with comfort; knowing that they can tell somebody that's an upperclassmen that they need to get back or that they need to cover somebody, and not being afraid that they are going to get their head bitten off."

The Panthers' captains — seniors Ali Kelly, Haley Hess and Rebekah Nisbet — agree that the link to success will be determined by how quick the team becomes a, well, team.

"We're not used to playing with each other," Kelly says. "We're having to get team communication and talking on the field down, and playing together down. It's difficult."

The complication appears worse when analyzing the nonconference results. South Medford, which has lost all four of its nonconference games, has scored one goal and allowed 15. Fretz attributes that to a challenging schedule, while the captains have singled out the lack of talking.

"We've been conditioning (in practice) because we haven't been talking," Nisbet says. "It really improved our communication and we can see that it helps when we communicate. We can accomplish a lot more."

Despite the challenge, the captains and Fretz agree that the progress of communication has already become less of a weakness with each game played and every practice completed. And with all-leaguers Kelly and Mariah Winstead, expectations are as high as ever.

"I think we can go pretty far with all the talent that we all have," Hess says. "It'll take, because we are a young team, a lot of the younger people getting used to playing at this level and playing together more."

Sheldon

Sheldon returns 12 varsity players, including 10 seniors, from last season's runner-up finish in conference at 7-3-0.

The Irish, which finished 11-5-0 overall, lost to Clackamas, 3-0, in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

Adam Barton, who was the junior varsity coach the past three seasons, has taken over the senior-laden team this year.

"We have a great core of girls who have been through the program," Barton says. "Ten seniors really helps lead the team where it needs to go.

"There's a lot of heart in the team, a lot of work ethic. I foresee a lot of wins this year."

Roseburg

Six starters, including three all-leaguers, return for Roseburg, which finished last in the conference with a 1-9-0 record and a 1-12-1 overall record.

Senior forward Shae Yuma, senior midfielder Chelsie Heberling and sophomore midfielder Brooke Strawn all earned all-league honors a year ago.

"I think we're going to be a solid team," coach Adam Blue says. "We were a solid team last year despite our record. Most of our games were one-goal losses. We were in every game last year. We were just a little young, a little inexperienced. This year we're a little more mature, a little more experienced."

South Eugene

Of the 10 varsity players from last year that were eligible this fall, only five returned to South Eugene following its fourth-place finish in conference last season at 3-5-2.

The Axemen were 5-8-2 overall and lost 1-0 in overtime to Redmond in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs.

All-league junior midfielder Madison Singell is one of the handful of experienced athletes for the Axemen, who also return two players who missed last season with anterior cruciate ligament injuries.

"I think right now it's just rebuilding," fifth-year coach Brad Stratton says. "Not kinda what we're used to at South.

"It's a bit of a challenge for sure. I tried to get everybody up to speed quickly. I think at this point, I'm not keeping expectations super high. We're not looking very far ahead."

Grants Pass

Grants Pass returns eight varsity players — four starters — from last season, when the Cavers finished fifth in conference with a 3-6-1 record.

Leading the way for Grants Pass, which went 5-8-1 overall and lost four straight games to end the season, was all-league senior forward/midfielder Jessica Bath.

Hector Cruz, who coached for 10 seasons before retiring in 2005 — the last time Grants Pass reached the state playoffs — also returns to the sidelines.

"What I'm trying to do is just organize and set a standard with the girls," Cruz says. "The expectation that work ethics, work habits and their work rate is going to enhance their performance.

"It's going to be some delayed gratification. There's going to be a waiting period."

Reach reporter Shawn Miller at 776-4469, or e-mail sports@mailtribune.com