When it comes to local Southwest Conference softball, change is in the air this spring.
North Medford and South Medford both have new head coaches and, within those programs, different faces have been tasked to replace major game-changers.
At Grants Pass, injuries have challenged the dangerously deep Cavers to make some adjustments.
One thing hasn’t changed: The Black Tornado is expected win the SWC crown after recent voting by league coaches.
The decision, however, was hardly a landslide. Grants Pass came in second by one point and had four first-place votes to North’s two. Veteran Roseburg was right on their tales with another first-place vote.
Sheldon was fourth, the Panthers fifth, South Eugene sixth and Willamette seventh.
The top four teams in the SWC automatically qualify for the Class 6A 32-team state bracket.
The Black Tornado, the defending 6A state champion, has captured the last eight conference titles. North returns three starters, including the pitcher who led them to Oregon supremacy. Longtime leader Mike Mayben was named the 6A coach of the year after the Tornado beat Westview, 11-3, in the state final, but he resigned from his position last August. Former assistant coach Chris Campbell has taken over a program that saw nine seniors graduate.
The Tornado finished 30-1 overall and won 18 straight to wrap up the 2017 campaign. In 12 seasons, Mayben collected an overall coaching record of 276-64 and led North to four 6A state championships (2009, 2012, 2013 and 2017) and a runner-up showing in 2014.
“So far, so good,” Campbell said of taking over. “The girls have bought into the change and are working hard and are really trying to continue the legacy here.”
Seniors Alex Barry (second baseman) and Rylan Austin (pitcher) are returning first-team all-conference picks, and are the Tornado’s only returning starters along with sophomore infielder Lauren Barry.
Alex Barry led the SWC in runs scored (30), while Austin (who signed with Montana State-Billings) was 13-1 with a 1.90 ERA in league contests last spring.
Austin was a second-team all-state selection and Alex Barry a third-team honoree.
Lauren Barry received SWC honorable mention.
Austin, who made the switch from a two-year starter at shortstop to pitcher last year, gives the Tornado an instant edge with her return. Junior Chelby Smalley is her catcher.
Alex Barry is a four-year starter at second base.
“Strong, fundamentally sound,” Campbell said of Barry. “She’s a good team leader and one of those girls that can make a tough play look like an easy one. That is one thing, we are really strong up the middle.”
As for the rest of the team?
“We’re all new,” Campbell said. “(Moving) from JV to varsity, it’s a huge speed difference. They’re working hard on getting the fundamentals they need and experience.”
Most, however, have been playing within the Tornado program for years, Campbell added.
The transition from Mayben to him has been much smoother because of Campbell’s extensive experience with the program. He spent the last five years as a varsity assistant, and has been involved for eight years overall.
“Every one of these girls has been in the program for at least since 12U,” he said.
Senior Monique Kruse and junior Ella Ivens are first basemen and backup pitchers, and junior Allie Hertager and sophomore Rylie Stewart are playing at third base.
Junior Kylie Baker is in center field, senior Lily Gann right field and sophomore Grace Johnson left field.
Taelor Mayben (infield), Olivia Lethlean (outfield) and Mahal Miles (outfield) all graduated. Lethlean (.500) and Mayben (.493) paced the conference in batting, leading to first-team all-state and all-league acclaim.
The Tornado open its SWC schedule by hosting Sheldon in a doubleheader beginning at 2 p.m. Monday.
South Medford is without standout Pat Moore, last season’s SWC pitcher of the year who is now at NCAA Division I DePaul. Catcher Bailee Tatum, a first-team all-league catcher, also graduated.
Shane Ramsey has replaced Miranda Gillaspie, who coached the Panthers the past seven years. In her time, Gillaspie compiled a 92-94 record and guided South to the state semifinals in 2014.
Ramsey, a 1988 South Medford High graduate, had worked as a volunteer assistant with the North Medford softball team the last three years and has additional coaching experience.
The Panthers return SWC second-teamers Shayna Woods (senior second baseman) and hard-hitting junior third baseman/outfielder Jaden Alexander.
South’s other returners with starting experience are Lexis Jones (senior center fielder), Rikiya Bratcher (sophomore shortstop), Lanie Rodriguez (sophomore first baseman who’s been injured) and Ashley Wolfard (senior first baseman/pitcher).
“We’ve got a ways to go on defense, but we’re a good hitting team,” Ramsey said. “Kids are playing new spots, but working hard.”
South will also rely on Cassidy Clark (a senior catcher who transferred from North Medford), Maddie Dalke (junior pitcher/first baseman), Matlyn Leetch (freshman outfielder) and Cassie Fleming (junior outfielder).
Wolfard and Dalke take on the responsibility of replacing Moore.
“This team hasn’t been used to making so many plays on defense (because of Moore’s dominance),” Ramsey said. “With the absence of Pat Moore, she was not only our pitcher but she was the No. 1 offensive producer as well. I just see (the team) improving. Every week they are getting better and learning a lot.”
The Panthers lost to West Salem, 1-0, in the first round of the state playoffs last year.
South pulled off a historic victory in 2017, beating crosstown rival North, 6-3, to snap a 28-game losing streak to the Black Tornado.
Grants Pass is a little banged up now, but look out for the Cavers as their roster begins to heal.
Things were looking great for Grants Pass early on — all nine starters were set to return after the Cavers lost to Tualatin, 4-0, in the state quarterfinals last spring. Then Donnie Bellum’s program got hit with a few setbacks.
Skylar Padgett, a two-time SWC all-league pick, tore her ACL during basketball season.
Outfielder Halleigh Noga, an all-league second-team selection, partially tore a quadriceps muscle but has returned to practice. Third baseman Marissa Eilenberger, an SWC first-teamer, experienced a leg injury during a scrimmage and could be out a couple weeks. Grace Gaither, a transfer from Sherwood who has committed to Oregon State University, had surgery to clean scar tissue out of her knee and is also expected to be out at least a few weeks.
Junior Brooklyn Hurd (a first-team SWC outfielder last year) will now play at third base in place of Eilenberger, while seniors Haley Dougherty (a SWC second-team infielder) and Jordan Kuykendall (second-team league catcher) will fill the middle-infield spots.
Experienced senior Alyssa Etheridge, a Montana State-Billings signee, will pitch, and sophomore Devin Ireland is playing catcher. Ireland and freshman Emily Rund are backup pitchers.
Sophomores Kylie Rucker, Jenna Zavolta, Naomi Hook and Chloe Dominger may also see an increased role.
“We’ve got so many kids out of position,” Bellum said. “We’re trying to get kids healthy and back. It’s going to be a learning curve as we go, but hopefully we’ll get kids up to speed.”
The Indians return nine players with starting experience in seniors Katie Ladd (left field), Alexa Ligon (second base), Maria Bacigalupo (center field) and Hannah Goodin (first base), juniors Jordan Gibson (third), Madysn Blevins (pitcher), Samie Bergmann (catcher) and Marinda Carlyle (shortstop) and sophomore Brittany Glasser (utility).
Bergmann was a first-team all-league catcher, Blevins a second-team pitcher, Carlyle an honorable mention infielder and Glasser an honorable mention utility player.
Sohomore Erika Allen is a returning second-team SWC outfielder.
The Indians lost 7-0 to West Albany in the opening round of the state playoffs last year.
Sophomore first baseman Jordan Henderson is a returning SWC first-teamer, junior catcher Emma Neuman is back as a second-team SWC selection and sophomore pitcher Camille Leach was an SWC honorable mention pick.
Other returning starters are second baseman Nikkie Wagoner (the team’s only senior), sophomore shortstop Kelsi Sorensen, sophomore third baseman Rylee Valentine and junior outfielder Anna Boyd.
Sheldon graduated all-league honorees Avery Morehead-Hutsell and Samantha Mundorff.
The Axemen, led by new coach Breana Davisson, return six starters: sophomore Ella O’Quinn (third base), sophomore Ella Garner (outfield), junior Lisa Kochevar (catcher), junior Grace Clark (pitcher/utility), junior Abbey Jost (first base) and senior Molly Gonenne (second base).
Other players to watch include Kaitlyn Kurtz (freshman pitcher/utility), Sydney Crabbe (freshman infielder), Tatie Kessler (freshman utility) and Jenna Glenzel (freshman outfielder).
South Eugene has five underclassmen in its starting lineup backing Kurtz, who is off to a good start inside the circle. She, along with O’Quinn and Jost, are leading the team offensively.
South Eugene shortstop Sydney Bowers, the SWC player of the year, graduated.
Willamette returns six starters: senior center fielder Cedaira Thomson, senior pitcher/third baseman Erika Garcia, sophomore first baseman Krystal Garcia, junior catcher/first baseman Jazz Ortega, sophomore left fielder Kaylee Gangestad and junior utility Samantha McFarland.
Garcia has committed to Chemeketa Community College. Ortega and Thomson were honorable mention SWC selections last spring.
Other players to watch include sophomore third baseman Trinity Collins, freshman pitcher/shortstop Tiffany Kindt, freshman third baseman Ashlyn Bitikofer, freshman right fielder Brooklyn Bell Freshmen and freshman third baseman/pitcher Madisyn Teiggs.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt