A schedule coach Mark Paxton said is as difficult as any in the state enabled the Licking Valley High School softball team to hold down the top spot in the latest Division II area coaches poll despite having five losses.

A schedule coach Mark Paxton said is as difficult as any in the state enabled the Licking Valley High School softball team to hold down the top spot in the latest Division II area coaches poll despite having five losses.

"I guess people are respecting who we've played," he said last Wednesday after a 13-1 victory at Bexley. "We set up our schedule to challenge us, and I think it's as tough as anyone's. It sure feels that way. We've lost our share of games, no question, but we've beaten some quality opponents, too."

That list now includes Lakewood, which uncharacteristically surrendered a run in the first inning last Thursday when Brooke Nethers scored on Jessica Montgomery's bunt as the visiting Panthers eventually won 2-0.

Licking Valley, which improved to 11-5 overall and 4-2 in the MSL-Ohio Division, ended a 10-game losing streak against the Lancers, which included a 5-0 decision April 8. It was Licking Valley's first win in the series since 2004, when a seven-year run of outright or shared league championships with Lakewood came to an end.

The Lancers, who were third in the state poll, slipped to 11-3 overall and 4-1 in league play after being limited to two hits.

"We're showing signs of how good we can be but also how young we still are," said Paxton, whose team was scheduled to play two more state-ranked opponents (Brookville and Strasburg-Franklin) last Friday and Saturday in the Centennial Stellar Classic at Ohio State.

Paxton started sophomore Hannah Dodson at pitcher last Thursday, brought in Montgomery, a junior, in the third inning and then handed the ball back to Dodson for the sixth. He likes being able to alternate the two, a luxury he was missing earlier in the spring as Montgomery was sidelined with shoulder tendinitis. Now healthy, Montgomery hit a grand slam against Bexley. Stephanie Cooperrider had a two-run home run.

"We like being able to mix it up and show teams a couple of different looks," said Paxton, whose team will play host to Whitehall on Monday and Newark Catholic on Tuesday and at Heath on Wednesday and Newark Catholic on Friday. "When they're both on, well, we're pretty tough to beat."

Granville, which a year ago handed eventual Division III state-champion Lakewood its only MSL-Ohio loss, defeated the Panthers 2-1 in the first-round game April 16 as Amanda Barker allowed five hits and struck out eight.

"The tough games keep coming, but we wouldn't have it any other way," Paxton said.

ELSEWHERE -- First-year coach Scott Harris has been saying all season that Newark Catholic is a family, and that sometimes means his more-skilled players won't necessarily dominate playing time.

A 6-0 home win over Bexley last Thursday illustrated as much. Sophomore pitcher Abbey Fetter, who backs up third-year No. 1 starter Tessa Lausberg, threw a one-hitter and junior Erica Rath, another substitute, drove in two with a single with the bases loaded in the sixth inning.

"Everyone wants to play and we're trying to make sure that happens," Harris said. "The incentive for the girls who aren't is that they can still step up and support their teammates."

The Green Wave, which finished 3-22 overall a year ago and failed to score a run during an 0-10 start, improved to 5-5 and 2-2 in the MSL-Ohio entering a game last Friday at Whitehall. It will play host to Heath on Monday and Lakewood on Thursday and at Bexley on Wednesday.

"We're hitting the ball better and we've improved defensively," Harris said.

"These girls are starting to realize they can make a difference in the program this year. I honestly thought we were a year away, but they're making things happen now."