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Sheldon in a landslide

Parity reigned in the inaugural Southwest Conference girls basketball season a year ago.

Sheldon narrowly took the conference crown by one game over North Medford and Grants Pass and South Eugene battled to the final day for the fourth and final state-playoff berth.

Asked about this season, SWC coaches shared a similar mindset: Expect much of the same.

The Irish are again favored to take the crown — this time overwhelmingly — and as many as four others in the six-team conference could contend for Class 6A playoff spots, so say the coaches in a preseason poll.

The Irish collected five first-place votes, while Grants Pass received the other. North Medford was picked to finish second. Following the Black Tornado in the third spot is Grants Pass. South Eugene is fourth, South Medford is fifth and Roseburg sixth. Coaches could not vote for their own squad.

"I actually think (the SWC) is tougher than last year," says sixth-year Black Tornado coach Tim Karrick. "Most of the teams probably have a chance at the playoffs."

Sheldon, however, may be on a much different plateau than the rest, Karrick admits.

"I think it'll be tough for anybody to beat Sheldon," Karrick says. "For the first time in our conference, I think we have a legitimate state-championship caliber team in Sheldon.

"I don't think there's any way they don't go through conference unbeaten."

Sheldon lost Kendra Little, a first-team all-state performer and the SWC player of the year last season, to graduation, but the Irish return a star-studded cast in senior all-SWC first-teamers Katie Steigleman and Theresa Brown.

The Black Tornado rivals Sheldon in depth and quality returners with seniors Whitney Hodnett (5-foot-11 wing) and Erica Schultz (5-11 post/wing) coming back.

North will also get an added boost from senior defensive-minded guard Kellie Satterfield, senior do-everything wing Jana Parker and juniors Jaci Abeloe (post), Andrea Egge (wing) and McKenzie Smith (wing/post). Sophomore Karissa Dixon takes over the starting point guard duties for the Black Tornado.

"She complements the older group really well," says Karrick of Dixon. "She's really unselfish. I believe she will make the older girls better because she can penetrate and dish."

South Medford, which defeated Mountain View on Dec. 7 to snap a 26-game losing streak that spanned the last two seasons, boasts one of the quicker lineups in the SWC.

Under the guidance of first-year coach Tom Cole, the Panthers are averaging 72 points per contest. Compare that to last season where South Medford surpassed the 50-point mark only three times.

"We are trying to instill a new philosophy about work ethic and about winning," says Cole. "And we're trying to instill some things on the defensive end that will make things much easier getting out in transition. That's what we have to do because we don't have a lot of size."

The Panthers are led by sharp-shooting guard Brittney Newcomb (5-6 junior) and point guard Sheena Barkley (5-5 junior).

Junior Nagely Medina has also provided a spark for South, while seniors Alanna Stevens, who has missed the preseason with an illness, and Emily Salisbury, South's only all-SWC pick a year ago, should give stability to the young Panthers.

Cole, while optimistic, understands the difficulties that still may lie ahead for a South Medford team that went 2-27 over the last two years in conference play.

"I know where we are projected to be," says the coach. "And why would we expect to be picked anywhere else? We expect to be picked near the bottom and we expect to be counted out."

"All I'm hoping to do is work each day to change things around on how we compete," adds Cole. "One thing I will guarantee is that the girls won't be giving up and will be working hard."

Grants Pass looks to make last season's playoff-less campaign an aberration.

The Cavers started 1-7 last year in the SWC before winning four of their final six games to make a push for fourth place.

"We beat Sheldon at the end of the year and almost beat Roseburg," says fifth-year GP coach Robert Lingo. "I felt like we were really playing well the last five games of the season. If only we could have played better at the first part of the year."

Grants Pass has plenty of firepower to make a run at its fifth postseason trip in six years.

Junior 6-1 post Natasha Torgerson and senior 6-2 post Gabby Randall form one of the tallest frontcourts in the SWC.

Senior guard Amber Franko and junior guard Kayla Loffer also come back as starters, while senior Chelsey Chamberlain and junior Mary Lathen should provide a spark for the experienced Cavers.

South Eugene welcomed a new coach in Steve Eastburn, who assisted the last 13 years under 25-year coach Jim Denker.

The Axemen, like many other teams in the league, have plenty of experience with returning starters Sarah Whitfield (5-11 post), Carmen Williams (5-8 wing), Lacy Clark (5-9 wing) and Elyse Barnes (5-9 post/wing).

Roseburg, on the other hand, was hit the hardest by graduation.

The Indians lost eight seniors from last year's state-playoff team and return one starter in senior point guard Katie Wilton.

Senior 5-10 post Kendra Pennington and senior guards Jade Berry-Cabiao and Stefanie Jarvis will attempt to help Wilton manage Roseburg's deliberate offensive scheme.

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail kgoff@mailtribune.com

Senior wing Whitney Hodnett does a little of everything for North Medford. - Photo by Jerry Clarkson