Of all the teams clawing to unseat No. 5 Glenelg from its perch atop the Howard County softball standings, No. 8 Atholton is the last contender standing in the way of an outright district title.

The Raiders came within a run of felling the Gladiators on March 27, when Glenelg came back from a 4-1 deficit to win, 5-4, in the eighth inning after scoring the automatic baserunner allowed by the international tiebreaker rule.

Glenelg remains undefeated. The loss was Atholton’s only defeat. The Raiders have another shot at the defending county champion on Thursday.

If Atholton wins out, it will steal at least a share of the league championship.

“We’re really excited,” junior pitcher Alex Herschman said. “That’s all we’ve been talking about all week, that team.”

Herschman and her teammates had to hold their excitement. Originally scheduled to play Glenelg on Monday, the girls instead found themselves inside an auxiliary gym taking soft toss as the rain fell outside.

After finishing with a .500 league record in 2012, the Raiders have elevated their play under 44-year-old first-year coach Bob Baxter, and his assistant coach and younger brother Steve.

The Baxters, who have also coached girls’ soccer at Centennial for the past five years, preach fundamentals while employing a positive outlook that has the team champing at the bit to compete against the most talented opposition.

“That’s really why you want to coach,” Bob Baxter said. “You want to coach against the best squads, against the best coaching. It’s really a thrill to be in that environment.”

Baxter said Herschman “has clearly been the driving source behind our success.” With an arsenal of six pitches, Herschman said she keys on variety and movement to stifle opposing batters.

When hitters put the ball in play, a stingy defense confident from Baxter’s repetitive drilling know how to respond.

Through Tuesday, Herschman had 114 strikeouts and a place among the top 10 area pitchers in that category. Opposing batters are hitting a paltry .167 while Atholton’s defense has a .946 fielding percentage.

Atholton has allowed only 19 runs on the year, fewer than any other team in the county.

“I think it’s all about preparation,” Baxter said. “One of the things that we try to get across to the girls is you win games on the practice field.

“When they’re in a game situation, they can feel a lot more comfortable about having a backhanded ball, or getting a force at second base, or even pulling off a defensive first-and-third play, which is also something we’ve worked on.”

Atholton has only one senior, captain Melanie Berger at catcher. The team’s other captain, junior Maya Schwartz, is hitting .425 with five doubles and two home runs, including a three-run shot in the first matchup with Glenelg.

Sophomores Danielle Dolbow, Amanda Petersen and Gina D’Asto are all playing their part. Dolbow is tied for the team lead with 19 hits, Petersen is batting over .400 and D’Asto has 15 steals on 17 attempts.

“The girls have responded to what we brought to the table,” Baxter said. “They’re hungry for competition at the highest level.”

Rebels raising their standards

Sated by a 15-1 team victory at Jefferson last week, Fairfax junior Caitlin Buchanan did not immediately realize what she had done. Then it hit her.

After retiring the last 15 batters on Friday in Alexandria, Buchanan strung together her first career no-hitter. A walked Colonial scored by an error accounted for the opposing run.

“I honestly didn’t notice that I had thrown a no-hitter until 10 or 15 minutes after my game,” Buchanan said. “It was a pretty amazing feeling.”

After transferring from Gar-Field before last season, Buchanan has supplied consistency in the circle for a developing Fairfax team.

With four games left to play, the Rebels (7-9, 4-6 AAA Liberty District) have matched their 2012 win totals and still have a chance to finish the season with a winning record.

In a district that inclues No. 4 Stone Bridge as well as previously ranked Madison and McLean, Fairfax is no longer intimidated.

“It’s hard, but you really learn to be mentally tough, not to kick yourself and not to be afraid of a name,” Buchanan said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my girls.”

Fairfax has yet to beat those teams this season, but the Rebels are riding a wave of new confidence after putting up 11 runs in a one-run loss to Langley before no-hitting Jefferson.

Leading up to the past two games,Fairfax has instituted a new pregame routine to dial in focus. Before they get on the bus or take the field, the girls braid each other’s hair and apply eye black, then they meet as a group behind the dugout to talk through the game plan as their opponents take the field.

Sophomore Kiana Sherlund, whom Buchanan calls “our best player,” said the team is superstitious, always taking half a bucket of softballs backhand and forehand before hitting off the tee and taking soft toss in the same order every game.

A North Carolina recruit with travel ball experience, Sherlund has assumed a leadership role and paces the Rebels with 14 RBI. Sherlund and junior Rutgers commit Rebecca Hall lead the team with two home runs each.

From Sherlund’s perspective, once Fairfax learns to beat its league rivals, it will be positioned for a postseason run of success.

“If we get past the teams in our district, then we can basically beat anyone,” she said.

The Post Top 10

Northern defended the top spot with a 3-0 win over visiting O’Connell, and junior pitcher Jess Cummings is 14-0 with a 0.00 ERA for the Patriots. . . . South County and Lake Braddock provided each school’s Viriginia AAA Patriot District loss, and both teams face third-place West Potomac (8-2 in district play) before Saturday. . . . Woodgrove won its last four games by a combined difference of 49-0.

1. Northern (15-0) LW:1

2. O’Connell (19-1) LW:2

3. Sherwood (13-0) LW: 3

4. Stone Bridge (14-1) LW: 4

5. Glenelg (16-0) LW: 5

6. South County (13-1) LW: 6

7. Woodgrove (14-2) LW: 7

8. Atholton (13-1) LW: 8

9. Lake Braddock (13-1) LW: 9

10. National Cathedral (8-0) LW: 10

Also considered: Loudoun County (14-2), McLean (13-3), St. Mary’s Ryken (11-4)

(Records through Tuesday)

Related: Cummings, Northern down O’Connell

Schedules: Softball | Baseball

Standings: Softball | Baseball

Statistical leaders: Softball | Baseball