Warren G. Harding's softball team has come a long way in three seasons.
When Bruce Whetzel took over as the Raiders' coach after two seasons as an assistant working with pitchers, not much was expected of the program. The team was easy pickings for most opponents and tournament victories were the stuff of fantasy.
Things have changed for the Raiders. Harding is 15-8 and 12-0 in the Lake Erie League after Saturday, and the Raiders had already clinched at least a share of the championship.
It's hard to believe this is the same softball program that once routinely suffered through losses of 20 runs or more.
"The first year, we didn't set high goals," Whetzel said. "We were learning how to win. Last year, our goal was to win a game in the (Division I) tournament and we did that when we beat Lakeside. This year, we want to go further."
Whetzel and the Raiders had three goals when the season began.
"Our goals were to win 65 percent of our games, win the Lake Erie League and advance to districts," he said. "We're on track to get the first two goals and the third one is going to be in front of us next week."
Harding was second to Mentor in the LEL a year ago, when the Raiders split with the Cardinals. But Mentor left for another league at the end of the 2010-11 academic year.
"I felt it was ours to take this year," Whetzel said.
Harding's tournament run begins at 4:30 on Monday at Twinsburg. Whetzel said he expects to start junior pitcher Anastashia Garrison against the Tigers.
Garrison has pitched during each of the last two seasons. She is the most experienced of the Raiders' pitchers.
"She's my power pitcher," Whetzel said.
Freshman Alexis Stano doesn't throw as hard, but Whetzel said she changes speeds and hits spots well. Junior Rachel Stano, Alexis' sister, also pitches.
Rachel Stano also is a corner infielder. Rachel and Ray'ale Chatmon are the Raiders' top hitters at approximately .470. Chatmon usually plays shortstop, but also is a talented catcher.
"She's a great catcher, but she's also a great shortstop," Whetzel said. "If we're playing teams that can hit the ball, I have to have her at shortstop."
Junior outfielder-catcher Jackie Callow is batting .420. She has specialized in soccer the last two years, but decided to play softball after taking two years off from the sport.
Whetzel said Alexis Stano and senior right fielder Kayla Kereliuk also have been hitting the ball well lately.
"It's not one kid leading us," he said. "Every day, it seems somebody steps up."
Harding's 15-8 record is even more impressive, considering the Raiders started the season 0-4. They lost twice each to Lakeview and Fitch before hitting their stride.
"We loaded up early in the season to prepare us for the LEL and the tournament," Whetzel said.
Harding's non-conference schedule also included Howland, Western Reserve, Brookfield and state-ranked Jackson-Milton.
The Raiders beat Brookfield, 3-1, last week behind a two-hitter by Garrison. But Whetzel said a sweep of Howland and Western Reserve on April 7 the Saturday before Easter cemented his players' confidence.
Harding beat Howland, 5-4, as Rachel Stano and Alyssa Donald delivered back-to-back run-scoring doubles and Alexis Stano got the final out with the potential tying run on second.
The Raiders beat Western Reserve, 5-1, behind Rachel Stano's complete-game effort. Shelby Crist had a two-run double and Vicky Provitt singled and doubled for Harding.
"That was probably a milestone weekend for the program," Whetzel said. "We went out and hit the ball and played errorless defense and we beat two very good teams. Howland has two of the best players in the area in (Emily) Price and (Erika) Nites. That was a big day for us."
It took some time for the Raiders to get to that point, but Whetzel said he could see it coming. And he senses Harding can continue to improve.
"We're going to get better and better every year," Whetzel said. "I compare us to where Fitch was. Five or six years ago, the program wasn't very good, but then they had a .500 team and one year they went to regionals and actually knocked off Boardman that year. I think we have that kind of potential."
Winning games has led to more and more interest in the program and an influx of talent that should continue to propel the Raiders forward.
"The talent we have coming along is going to force people to compete for positions next year and the year after that," Whetzel said.
That alone is a vastly different set of circumstances than Harding was used to just a couple of years ago.
BRISTOL STOMP: Mathews clinched the Northeastern Athletic Conference championship on Wednesday in a victory at home over Lordstown, but the next day, the Mustangs lost to the Bristol Panthers.
Bristol swept the season series from Mathews. It might have felt like a bit of payback for the Panthers, who lost to the Mustangs in a district final each of the last two years.
Lauren Slusher scored on a throwing error in the eighth inning Thursday to give Bristol a 5-4 victory. When the teams met last month, the Panthers won, 3-2, in nine innings as Katie Patchin outdueled the Mustangs' Cheyenne Eggens.
AROUND THE HORN: Among next week's early tournament matchups, All-American Conference rivals Niles and Hubbard meet at 4:30 Tuesday at Hubbard. The Red Dragons and Eagles are in the Division sectional-district. That district's top seed is defending state champion Poland, which makes its 2012 tournament debut at 4:30 Wednesday against the winner of a game between Marlington and Southeast. Poland coach Reid Lamport has said this will be his final season. Howland, like Harding, opens tournament play Monday in the Boardman Division I sectional-district. The Tigers host Cuyahoga Falls at 4:30. Defending Division III state champion Champion has a first-round bye in the Jefferson West tournament and will meet the winner of a game between Grand Valley and Garfield at 4:30 on Thursday.