The challenges were stacked against the North Medford volleyball team on Thursday. Facing its cross-town rival, South Medford, inside the Panthers’ rocking gym and coming off a 10-day layoff from competition, the Black Tornado was able to find answers at all the critical moments.

North swept South 27-25, 25-15, 26-24 to win its Southwest Conference opening match and take annual hometown bragging rights.

“I’ve played against these girls since I started volleyball,” said North senior outside hitter Kiley Pauck, who had six kills. “It’s the most exciting game of the season just because both of us are going to try to give our best matches. It is definitely a rivalry, completely.”

The Black Tornado (5-2, 1-0 SWC) was down 23-18 in the critical opening game, before rallying back with superior firepower from the likes of Pauck and fellow senior Adriane McLemore, who finished with a match-high nine kills.

“We didn’t die,” McLemore said. “We’re not a dying team, and it’s awesome.”

The Panthers (1-3, 0-2 SWC) fed off the energy from their hard-cheering fans and grabbed the early momentum, but also missed five serves in the opening game and were stung by unforced errors.

“That’s a hard one because that first set is really tough to come back from,” said South senior Chanel Groom, who led South with seven kills and 10 digs. “It’s really crucial.”

South also gave North all it could handle in game three, staying within a point of the lead and eventually pulling ahead 20-19. But the Black Tornado, behind senior setter Alex Barry (25 assists) and sophomore outside hitter Lauren Barry (seven kills, 19 digs) leaned on its superior firepower to pull away.

“I think that long layoff did hurt us,” North coach Malcolm Munson said. “We weren’t as sharp as we could’ve been, I think. And I guess someone might say, ‘Well, you’re just using that as an excuse.’ So I tend to say, ‘We just have to be mentally tougher.’ I think that there is some truth to that and I don’t like to make excuses. But I think to our kids’ credit, they got rid of some of those nerves and overcame a good South team tonight.

“We beat a good team on their home court in three sets, so that was good,” he continued. “I thought we were not at the top of our game. Layoff or not, we weren’t really sharp, and yet we were still able to get a victory in three games, so I like that.”

For South Medford freshman Evelyn Laupola, the match was her first taste of the cross-town rivalry. The middle blocker performed like a veteran, however, notching a match-high five blocks.

“As a freshman, it’s very intimidating,” she said. “And even as a freshman on varsity, it’s very intimidating. But with my teammates, they make everything OK. They make me not intimidated and they help me out so much.”

“I think we could’ve beat them, actually, if we just didn’t miss our serves,” she added.

It’s quickly becoming a season of “what-ifs” for the Panthers, who lost in similar fashion in their SWC opener to South Eugene.

“We’re battling, it’s just (a lack of) finishing,” Panthers coach Emily Brink said. “And that’s either a mental block that we have to overcome or just being more cohesive as a team, so I think there’s a lot that goes into that, but we have to figure it out quick.”

Also for South, junior outside hitter Maggie Hutto had five kills, senior defensive specialist Megan Davis added 12 digs and sophomore defensive specialist Maisen Wauge served three aces.