Whitman Coach Eric Wallich knows his team's 2-3 record provides no reason to celebrate. It does, however, offer the Vikings hope.

Whitman emerged from as difficult an early-season schedule as any Montgomery County team with a pair of victories, including Monday night's 21-20 thriller over defending 3A champion Northwest. The win keeps the Vikings' playoff aspirations alive and salvages a difficult stretch that included losses to No. 2 Damascus (5-0), Quince Orchard (4-1) and Gaithersburg (4-1). Whitman's lone win before Monday came over Wootton (1-4).

Wallich said the team was hardly discouraged by the narrow early-season losses. Rather, the Vikings were left feeling that they could play with anybody. They proved just that against Northwest.

Junior running back Pat Lazear rushed for three touchdowns -- including the game-winner with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, a score that he set up by blocking a Northwest extra-point attempt.

"I'm glad to finally win one of the close games," said Wallich, who saw his team blow leads against Gaithersburg and Quince Orchard and lose to Damascus by only 10 points despite five turnovers. "We're definitely battle-tested. . . . We feel that we should be mentioned in the same breath [as those teams]."

Whitman likely will have to win its remaining five games to have any hope of making its second playoff appearance in three years. It's a challenge Wallich sees as difficult but not impossible.

The Vikings remaining games include Bethesda-Chevy Chase (4-1), which suffered its lone loss to Wheaton (2-3) on Sept. 30; Magruder (3-2), which has scored 102 points in consecutive victories since quarterback Mitchell Levine returned from injury; and Churchill (2-3), another team that could be better than its record indicates considering losses to Northwest, Seneca Valley and Gaithersburg.

Must-Win Games

Unlike Whitman, Gaithersburg's toughest stretch of the season has yet to come and, in all likelihood, will determine its postseason fate.

The Trojans host winless Walter Johnson tomorrow night and play at Watkins Mill (0-5) on Oct. 28 -- but between those two comes a date with No. 16 Seneca Valley (4-1) on Oct. 21. Gaithersburg finishes up with Quince Orchard on Nov. 4 and No. 9 Sherwood a week later. The Trojans likely will have to win two of those three if the three-time state champions hope to avoid a second straight season out of the playoffs.

"We've got to try and win every game to be a lock for the playoffs," Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart said. An "8-2 [record] will probably get us in, but we don't want to take our chances with 7-3."

The Trojans played one of their best games of the season Monday night in a 38-14 win over host Churchill. Gaithersburg jumped out to a 31-7 halftime advantage and dominated the time of possession behind a grinding running game led by Dan Atwood (126 yards, three touchdowns). Senior linebacker Darius Smith contributed 12 tackles and three sacks, and Mike Rubin added two sacks.

"If we had lost last night, we would've been in a tremendous fix," Kephart said. "We played very, very well. We shut them down for the most part."