It's 3:50 p.m. and Mike Mayben has just pulled up to North Medford High in his tried-and-true Nissan.

It's 3:50 p.m. and Mike Mayben has just pulled up to North Medford High in his tried-and-true Nissan.

The North Medford head softball coach's players are busy at work, stretching and even starting some drills. His assistants are there, buzzing about and offering guidance.

Mayben is 10 minutes early to practice, but already 10 minutes behind the efficient pace of his veteran squad.

When it comes to preparedness, the defending Class 6A champion Black Tornado is making sure that time plays on its side.

"Rather than everyone showing up at 10 'til 4, we are done warming up by 4:10," Mayben said. "As a coach, you don't have to worry about motivating them to stretch, take care of their bodies and not lose time. Time gets lost trying to get everyone moving in the right direction, but if I don't have to get them going, we don't lose any of that."

The value of preparation, of time, is important in the Southwest Conference, where an all-star Grants Pass team awaits with its sights set on redemption.

But for now ...

"We know there's a target on us," Mayben said.

The returning SWC champion Cavers bring back a star-studded cast with seven seniors, including four players set to compete on Division I college programs. They went undefeated in conference play in 2009, but were unable to do what the Black Tornado accomplished: Beat Sunset.

North topped the Apollos, 4-3 in nine innings, in the state championship game at Oregon State University. Earlier, in the second round of the playoffs, Sunset upset Grants Pass, which had won the state title in 2008.

Those two programs, along with Roseburg, South Medford, Sheldon and South Eugene, all hope to be one of the four SWC teams to advance to the state playoffs this spring. North opens conference play by hosting Roseburg on April 13. South Medford travels to South Eugene and Sheldon visits Grants Pass that day.

And SWC coaches agreed: Life in the SWC is no cakewalk.

"You better bring it in this league," South Medford head coach Dan Marshall said.

North features a potpourri of dangerous hitters, a bevy of speedy baserunners and one of the finest outfields in its classification. Gone is Taylor Schmidt, a do-it-all standout who pitched 189 of her team's 210 innings last spring. She also notched eight home runs and 35 RBIs in 2009. In her absence is a young pitching staff.

"Figuring out who would pitch is something we didn't have to think about in the past," Mayben said.

What Mayben likes just as much as anything is his team's sense of responsibility.

"There is a calmness about them where they can go out and have confidence in themselves," Mayben said. "The last two years they've worked harder than ever and they love playing. That collected work ethic is really showing now. This is a positive group that doesn't have too many highs or too many lows."

Senior center fielder McKenna Storey (a four-year starter) and junior left fielder Amanda Freitas will be joined by either junior Logan Hagey or sophomore Sierra Berryessa in the outfield. Hagey, who's also the team's designated player, started as a freshman two years ago but tore her ACL in volleyball and could not compete in 2009. She and Berryessa are tasked with replacing graduated right fielder Brittany Griffor.

In the infield, senior shortstop Jenna Stevens is a four-year starter, while senior first baseman Tejay Schmidt and junior catcher Amanda Wolfe are both three-year starters.

Hitting leadoff, Stevens batted .400 and recorded 35 runs last season. Storey, a .477 hitter, had 31 runs and has become known for her quality at-bats. Wolfe may have the most power at the plate, where she hit behind Taylor Schmidt in 2009. Batting .344, Wolfe finished with 31 RBIs, 10 doubles, three triples and two home runs. Tejay Schmidt (Taylor's sister) hits after her in the No. 4 spot. Freitas (.487) is a skilled slap hitter.

North goes from a sure-thing slinger in Taylor Schmidt to an assortment that includes a junior, sophomore and freshman. Kelsie Bartley (sophomore) and Lucy Baldovino (junior) combined to pitch only 21 innings last year.

"Both threw the ball well and we will work on accuracy, staying in the strike zone and working on stamina," said Mayben, adding that his 11-game nonconference schedule has been useful, in part, in evaluating his talent inside the circle and allowing the trio to "prove themselves."

Freshman Maryssa Becker gave up just two hits in a shutout win over Lake Oswego at the recent 30-team North Medford Invitational. She relieved Bartley in the fourth inning in their squad's loss to the Apollos, who also defeated Grants Pass that day.

Like North, South Medford is young inside the circle but loaded with athleticism. Sophomore ace Kylee Nunez has helped lead the Panthers, who are off to a 4-1 start.

"We play good defense, we hit the ball and we have some speed, which is evidenced by our start," Marshall said.

South's returning starters are Nunez, Tasha Equitz (catcher), Ashleigh Hawkins (second base), Megan Hobson (third base), Mallory Tacdol (left field), Samantha Owirka (center field) and Jordan Jones (right field/pitcher). Mallory Tacdol has signed to play next year at the University of North Dakota.

At Grants Pass, Morgan Barnes (Boise State), Tara Glover (Utah), Hannah Fischer (North Dakota) and Krystin Jantzer (North Dakota) are all set to play at the next level. Though the Cavers lost four seniors, they return a robust roster — including seven who played for the 2008 state title team.

Barnes, a senior pitcher, is the returning SWC pitcher of the year and is considered one of the toughest in the state. Jantzer moves from shortstop to play first or second base and may also spell Barnes in the pitcher's circle.

"Barnes doesn't need to pitch every inning," Grants Pass head coach Tom Blanchard said. "It's kind of like when we won the state championship; we were able to rest Morgan and use our other pitcher (Chelsea Chamberlain). ... (Jantzer) is probably the most versatile girl I've got. She's really a student of the game."

In the outfield, senior center fielder Glover was the state player of the year as a sophomore and perennial all-state and all-conference pick.

"I don't look for her to have anything other than her best year," Blanchard said of Glover. "She is such a high-level competitor."

Fischer adds extra intrigue — and talent. The shortstop did not play her sophomore or junior years, but stayed on the radar of college scouts.

"We have no excuses for not being successful," Blanchard said.

Roseburg lost to McMinnville, 1-0, in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs last year. The Indians graduated three starters who were all-SWC selections and lost junior pitcher Marissa Duarte, who transferred to 3A Glide.

Look for freshman Makinna Akers and sophomore Rebeccah Maley to take over the responsibilities inside the circle for Roseburg. Senior third baseman Crysta Conn, who has signed with Portland State University, leads the returnees.

Sheldon, in the hunt for a playoff spot with seven returning starters, lost to Franklin, 3-2, in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs last season. It was the program's fourth consecutive appearance. Young South Eugene includes seven new varsity players, most of whom are learning new positions.

GRANTS PASS

COACH: Tom Blanchard (third year, third stint; 12th overall)

LAST YEAR: 23-4, 15-0 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 7-1

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos. Yr.

Morgan Barnes P/1B Sr.

Krystin Jantzer 1B/P Sr.

Jamie Gregory LF Sr.

Tara Glover CF Sr.

Bri Amaranthus RF Sr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Hannah Fischer SS Sr.

Shawna McFarland 2B Jr.

Ashley Bacon 3B Jr.

Rashaun Sells 3B So.

Tia Misfeldt C/DP Sr.

Jessica Glaeser 1B Jr.

NORTH MEDFORD

COACH: Mike Mayben (fifth year)

LAST YEAR: 26-5, 11-4 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 7-1

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos. Yr.

McKenna Storey CF Sr.

Jenna Stevens SS Sr.

Amanda Wolfe C Jr.

Tejay Schmidt 1B Sr.

Kelsey Leming 3B Sr.

Hannah Leming 2B So.

Amanda Freitas LF Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Logan Hagey OF Jr.

Sierra Berryessa OF So.

Lucy Baldovino RHP Jr.

Kelsie Bartley RHP So.

Kimmy Glazier 3B Sr.

ROSEBURG

COACH: Tony Campos (eighth year)

LAST YEAR: 15-12, 9-6 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 3-3

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos. Yr.

Crysta Conn 3B Sr.

Evie Jarrett C Sr.

Shauna Collins 2B Sr.

Breanne Thomas SS Jr.

Tatum Anderson OF Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

Kendyl Brock OF Jr.

Erin Lee 1B Jr.

Haley Van Volkenburg DH/1B Jr.

Rebeccah Maley OF/P So.

Makinna Akers P Fr.

Cheyenne Rahn OF Jr.

Tessa Van Volkenburg C So.

Hailey Averett OF/C So.

Meghan Sanders DH/1B So.

Sydney Reynolds IF Fr.

Megan Larkin P/IF Fr.

SOUTH MEDFORD

COACH: Dan Marshall (eighth year)

LAST YEAR: 9-17, 4-11 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 4-1

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos Yr.

Tasha Equitz C Jr.

Mallory Tacdol LF Sr.

Ashleigh Hawkins 2B Jr.

Samantha Owirka CF So.

Jordan Jones RF/RHP Sr.

Kylee Nunez P/1B So.

Megan Hobson 3B Sr.

Ricki Tacdol SS So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Kelcee Jones RHP/OF Fr.

Olivia Beamish-White OF/DP So.

Shelbi Boteilho 1B So.

Kylie Towry 1B Fr.

Lindsey Namanny SS/2B Fr.

SHELDON

COACH: Brian Brancato (sixth year)

LAST YEAR: 12-15, 5-10 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 1-4

RETURNING STARTERS

Player Pos. Yr.

Rebecca Reynolds OF Sr.

Jandee Todd OF Sr.

Angela Witty C So.

Chloe Stiles IF Jr.

Cleo Nagy IF Sr.

Jessica Patterson IF Sr.

Hannah Brown IF Jr.

OTHER NOTABLES

McKenzie Doe IF Jr.

Chelsea Walker IF Fr.

Ashley Patterson OF Fr.

Kara Cheung OF Fr.

Anisa Chin P So.

Jackie Jones P Fr.

SOUTH EUGENE

COACH: Sarah Eichner (third year)

LAST YEAR: 8-18, 1-14 SWC

CURRENT RECORD: 1-6

RETURNING PLAYERS

Players Pos Yr.

Emily Shortreed C Sr.

Valorie Walkup LF Sr.

Rhiannon Neuville 1B Jr.

Isabelle Stock SS So.

OTHER NOTABLES

Lexi Hill P Jr.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com