NILES - When you think Warren G. Harding High School sports, it's likely that football and boys basketball come to mind.
Until this year, girls fastpitch softball was no more than a morning announcement to the student body on the intercom system. The program rarely enjoyed success in the rough-and-tumble existence of northeastern Ohio Division I play.
After increasing their record to 15-3 Friday with a 9-2 win over the Niles McKinley Red Dragons, the Raiders are setting their sights on what they hope will be a successful showing in the district tournament.
"We've played some non-conference games against teams we're going to see in the tournament, and we've competed with them," Raiders coach Bruce Whetzel said. "There's not a team out there that we're afraid of. In past years I would have thought there might have been certain teams we would be nervous playing.
"We've got the tournament draw Sunday night. We're going to do what we've got to do, and we plan on making some noise in the tournament."
Harding's losses were to Boardman, Youngstown Ursuline and South Range. The Raiders defeated Twinsburg, which is one of the better teams in the district.
The newfound confidence is the result of several years of developing fundamentals in the lower levels. There was a concerted effort by parents, coaches and other community members to increase the quality of play.
"I can't remember Harding having this good of a program," Whetzel said. "We've been getting better every year. This year we're having an exceptional year, and I think next year we'll be stronger."
The Raiders have just two seniors on the roster - Anastashia Garrison and Rachel Stano. Stano's younger sister Alexis, a sophomore, anchors the pitching staff and is one reason why Whetzel is confident about the future.
"With the hard work we put in with our coaches and with the good girls we have in the program, it helps build up the team," Alexis said. "We all have talent, whether it's in the outfield or with our hitting.
"As a team, we've all chipped in our part from fund-raising, to taking our time to practice, to keeping our grades up, making Harding softball what it is."
No one disputes the importance a dominant pitcher can have for the success of a team. The area saw that firsthand when pitching standout Lindsay Swipas led the Champion Golden Flashes to state championships in 2011 and 2012.
Whetzel hasn't been fortunate enough to have a player of Swipas' caliber on board, which is why he's stressed defensive fundamentals at all positions.
"All our wins are team wins," Whetzel said. "Our pitchers aren't going out there to strike anyone out. They're confident that they have a defense behind them. Our defense has really improved from two or three years ago. We're not just trusting in one girl."
Alexis started and allowed both runs in five innings before giving way to Garrison in the win over the Dragons. Alexis struck out 10 and allowed two walks.
It wasn't an easy day to pitch because of gusty winds that kicked up small storms of dust periodically. Alexis was more concerned about facing players she knows from youth leagues.
"The hardest thing was going up against old teammates I've played with since I was six," Alexis said. "We know their strengths and weaknesses. It was more a team game. Knowing you're playing with girls you started with shows how hard you work and you don't let them get inside your head."
A five-run fifth inning in which the Raiders sent 10 batters to the plate highlighted the win. Ray'ale Chatmon, who had two hits, started the rally with a lead-off triple. Shelby Crist drove in a run with a single, and Alexis drove in a pair with a single.
Rachel doubled home Alyssa Donald in the first to give Harding a 1-0 lead. Alexis tripled leading off the second and scored when the ball got away from the third baseman. Chatmon singled home Garrison, and Garrison scored on an error to extend the lead to 3-0.
The Dragons scored one run in the third and fifth innings. Hope Callen, who had two hits, doubled in Sam Melius in the third, and Brea Brazzon walked and came around to score on an error in the fifth.