Northern baseball coach Carl Smith used to worry during the latter innings of games early this season. His seven new starters often looked nervous. The Patriots lost four extra-inning games and had a midseason slump in which they lost eight of nine games. Three of those losses were by one run -- games a more relaxed, veteran bunch might have pulled out.

"You would see in the fifth or sixth inning," Smith said, "you could look at them, and they were like, 'Don't hit me the ball.' Now, nobody's afraid to make the play."

Each game has become a matter of when Northern will make the big play. Following that 1-8 stretch, the Patriots have won six in a row, including Monday's 3-2 victory over Chopticon in the Maryland 3A South Region quarterfinals.

Senior A.J. Marzilli's two-out, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning scored junior Curtis Sharkey with the winning run, as Northern overcame a 2-0 deficit.

"They got more comfortable in those situations," Smith said. "It's a tribute to the kids for sticking together and not throwing in the towel."

(Northern was scheduled to play a regional semifinal at top-seeded McDonough on Wednesday. Please see the Sports section for the result.)

The past three games of this winning streak have been decided by one run, and all were excellent pitching performances. Against Chopticon, freshman righthander Logan Coker, who was called up from junior varsity about three weeks ago, earned his third victory and only allowed a pair of second-inning unearned runs to the Braves.

In the bottom of the third, Marzilli turned his leadoff single into a run after a fielder's choice and a passed ball. Northern tied the game in the sixth when senior Chad Smart's two-out single to center field scored senior Sam Teague.

Hornets Fall Short

Great Mills's baseball team was not surprised that it scored four runs in the top of the first inning against No. 7 Chesapeake, the top seed in the 4A East Region. What startled the Hornets was that they could not put another run across the rest of the day and lost Monday's regional quarterfinal, 5-4.

Three days after a 3-0 first-round victory over Meade, the Hornets batted around in the first inning against the Cougars. Senior Jimmy Jones and sophomore Matt Leddy had RBI singles to open the scoring. With two outs, junior Tommy Dodgson drove in two more with a single.

Great Mills Coach Steven Wolfe, whose team learned on the field this season with just one returning starter, looked over at the opposing baseline at the end of the inning and saw plenty of raised eyebrows.

"I could just look at the coaches and the fans," said Wolfe, whose team finished the regular season 5-15, including five straight defeats heading into the playoffs, "and they were like, 'Who are these guys?' "

The line drives that were base hits in the first inning, though, turned to fly-outs the rest of the way. Great Mills stranded two runners in the third and a runner on second in the seventh.

Junior righthander Greg Wilson went the distance and did not get rattled on the mound. He mixed a sharp curveball and a tough changeup to keep Chesapeake's batters off balance. It highlighted an impressive performance by a Hornets team that started four sophomores and returns all but three players next season.

"I told our kids that nobody expected us to do anything," Wolfe said. "There was no pressure on us at all and we had to make Chesapeake earn everything they got."

Chesapeake scored two runs each in the second and third innings, before junior Jake Shibilsky hit a leadoff home run in the fourth inning to put Chesapeake ahead for good.

Good Second Effort

Thomas Stone's and Arundel's baseball teams played for three hours Monday and could not get a winner. They found one after 20 minutes on Tuesday.

Junior right fielder Averill Butler's one-out single in the bottom of the 12th inning scored senior catcher Aaron Jenkins with the game's lone run in a 1-0 Cougars' victory in the 4A East quarterfinals. Lightning postponed play Monday after the teams played 10 scoreless innings.

(The Cougars were scheduled to face No. 5 Old Mill, the defending 4A champion, Wednesday in a regional semifinal. Please see the Sports section for the result.)

Thomas Stone ended the regular season losing five of its last seven, but has looked strong both on the mound and at the plate in two playoff victories. The Cougars beat Glen Burnie, 13-3, in a first-round game last Friday.

"When the playoffs started, we knew we had to start playing for real," Jenkins said. "It was time to actually get to work. There's a lot more focus out there now."

As has been the case all season, the Cougars pitched very well. Junior lefthander Timmy Thompson went the first 62/3 innings, before junior Jonathan Kale pitched the next 31/3 to finish Monday's action. Senior Justin Arminger pitched the two innings Tuesday to complete the shutout and get the victory.

CSM Reaches Nationals

The College of Southern Maryland's softball team won its seventh Region XX title to advance to this week's National Junior College Division II tournament in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The 12-team field will play the double-elimination tournament today through Saturday. CSM (30-7) has never won a national championship.

Sophomore Heather Turner (Patuxent) was named the regional tournament's MVP. She won all three games, while batting 6 for 11 with 8 RBI. Freshman Danielle Sturman (Westlake) went 7 for 10 with 6 runs batted in the regional tournament to raise her season average to .429 and give her a team-high 32 runs batted in.

Northern Coach Carl Smith says his players lacked confidence during a midseason swoon. "Now, nobody's afraid to make the play," he says.