Crater head softball coach Chris Arnold has plenty of positive things to say about the Southern Oregon Hybrid, but he might have summed it up best with two words.

Crater head softball coach Chris Arnold has plenty of positive things to say about the Southern Oregon Hybrid, but he might have summed it up best with two words.

"Holy cow," he says.

The big-hitting, hard-throwing conference contains some of Oregon's most established and successful programs. Defending Class 6A state champion Grants Pass has captured two of the last three state titles, North Medford won it all in 2007 and Roseburg was the state runner-up in 2008.

Oh, and Crater — the league's new addition — won 5A championships in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Add a talented South Medford squad to the mix and you've got a league that could certainly see some close contests.

"It wouldn't shock me if you have three teams tied for first and two teams tied for second," North Medford head coach Mike Mayben says.

After votes by each head coach were cast and tallied, the Black Tornado stood on top of the preseason SOH poll with 16 points. North possesses an imposing lineup, as well as two of the area's top pitchers in Kelsie Bartley and Maryssa Becker.

Roseburg wasn't far behind, finishing second with 12 points. The Indians return standout pitcher Makinna Akers, who made a splash last year as a freshman.

Crater, bolstered by veterans like Renee Murphy and Dennae Grant, was a close third with 11 points.

At the bottom of the list are the Cavers and Panthers, who both have first-year coaches.

Kurt Green replaces Tom Blanchard in Grants Pass, while Miranda Gillaspie-Smith takes over for Dan Marshall at South.

Of course, being at the bottom doesn't mean much in this conference, coaches agreed.

"The conference will be tough," says Roseburg head coach Tony Campos. "If (teams in the SOH) can play like we have played, at least one of us could make a deep run in the playoffs."

Crater and North kick things off today with a 2 p.m. date at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

"Sometimes we feel Crater is more of a rival than anyone else just because they are really good," North senior Amanda Wolfe says. "I remember hitting against (Crater pitcher) Renee Murphy when I was 10. Now that they are in our conference and it actually means something, the intensity will be higher. They want to prove that they can play in the 6A also."

Certainly, each SOH team has its own set of superpowers.

"At the state level, we have the best league for softball," says Gillaspie-Smith, who brings a wealth of experience as a former player and assistant.

The Black Tornado is a tough, versatile and experienced club with impressive speed on the basepaths and in the outfield.

Bartley has turned in several shining showings during her career at North. She pitched a three-hitter to help lift the Black Tornado to a 2-0 win over Westview in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs last year. Bartley, who finished the season 15-1 with a 0.74 ERA, was named a third-team all-state selection.

This offseason, she developed a screwball and has continued to enhance an already difficult slider and changeup. Bartley's already showed off her skills this spring by tossing a pair of two-hitters for North, which has mowed down Marist, Jesuit, Southridge and Sprague.

"If (Bartley) is on, they are gonna be on," Campos says.

Becker, a hard-throwing sophomore, is expected to start every other game, Mayben says. Becker broke a finger during basketball season, but is regaining her touch. She pitched a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts and a one-hitter with nine strikeouts in victories earlier this year. Last spring, Becker finished 2-2 with a 1.09 ERA.

Bartley and Becker have only given up six combined runs this season. Bartley owns a 0.37 ERA and Becker a 1.7 ERA. Offensively, Bartley has hit a home run and has also recorded five RBIs.

Wolfe, an all-state catcher hitting .409, is one of four valuable seniors on the squad, along with leadoff hitter and left fielder Amanda Freitas, Logan Hagey and Alyssa Maurer.

Hagey was originally going to play shortstop, but found a home at third base after spraining a knee that she had already had surgery on. Hagey is batting .524 this season after a sensational 2010 campaign, when she was named to the all-state first team.

Junior Sierra Berryessa takes over in center field for McKenna Storey, an all-state outfielder who now plays soccer at Georgia Southern University. Offensively, Berryessa is hitting .458 as the second batter in the lineup.

Freshman Jocilynn Ellis and Maurer are being interchanged at shortstop and in right field for North, which graduated five seniors. Maurer owns a .700 on-base percentage with seven steals this year.

Hannah Leming returns to second base, while Shelbi Stevens, Becker and Bartley may all see some time at first base.

At Roseburg, shortstop Breanne Thomas and first baseman Tatum Anderson are among the Indians' top talents. Inside the circle, Akers is 5-1 this year.

At Central Point, the Comets return six players with starting experience, including four who were recognized to the Class 5A all-state squad.

Murphy, a second-team all-state honoree, finished 13-5 with a 1.5 ERA last season as a junior. At the plate, she led Crater with 25 RBIs.

Center fielder Grant (second team as a junior), catcher Sarah Haga (third team as a junior) and shortstop Malorie Mitchell (third team as a freshman) also return.

Grant had a team-high 34 hits in 2010, while Haga turned in 33 hits and 23 RBIs for Crater, which has moved up to the 6A classification.

"I'd like to think that the work we have done in past years has prepared us," Arnold says.

At Grants Pass, the Cavers look drastically different. Grants Pass lost five players who were offered the chance to play at the Division I level. The Cavers return three starters: Rashaun Sells, Ashley Bacon and Grace Marsh.

At South, senior Lucy Baldovino transferred from North to the Panthers' program, where she is one of the squad's key pitchers. The Panthers are coached by 28-year-old Gillaspie-Smith. Tasha Equitz, Ashleigh Hawkins, Samantha Owirka, Kylee Nunez and Ricki Tacdol are South's returning starters.

"We are on the upswing and gaining more experience," says Gillaspie-Smith. "We've got a core group that has been around and seven girls who will be seniors next year."

The top three finishers in the SOH will earn automatic placement in the 32-team state playoff bracket. The other two teams will compete in play-in contests to earn their spots in the playoffs.

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