As the South Penn Baseball League season winds down, the defending champion Taneytown Cardinals occupy familiar surroundings: first place.

The Westminster Elks also are starting to compete with the best in their division. But for the Elks, it's new territory.

"The last couple of years we've been trying to build a nucleus, and this year we have done so," Elks coach Walt VonBussenius Sr. said."It's taken some time, but I believe we are building a decent program."

With the playoffs less than a month away, the Cards (19-5) aretied for first in the West Division. The Elks (10-13) have made an efficient climb into third place in the East Division, having won fiveof their last six games, and are closer to the .500 mark than they've been in weeks.

"Basically, it's just a matter of us beginning togell," VonBussenius said. "We were hitting the ball well early and got solid pitching but didn't have the defense behind that pitching and were giving teams six and seven outs an inning. Now we're getting the good defense and timely hitting, and things are going well."

VonBussenius is hoping to carry the team's newfound success into the playoffs and also in the years to come.

"It's close in our division right now, and whoever starts peaking will have the edge. Basically, the guys are settled in and know where they are going to be playing day in, day out," he said.

That nucleus is led by Denny Snyder (.395 batting average, 14 runs batted in), Walt VonBussenius Jr. (.363, 13 RBI), Mike Murphy (.310, seven doubles and 14 RBI) and Doug Weeks (.325, 13 RBI) along with the strong pitching of Brad Beck and Jeff Story.

The Cards are atop the West, but this season they have company. The Cashtown (Pa.) Pirates have been neck-and-neck with them all season.

"It's a shame both of us are in the same division because we are without doubt head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league,"Cards coach Steve Bosley said.

The Cardinals have their best record ever at this point in the season, and Bosley believes the team's fortunes will only get better.

"We're stronger than ever, everybodyis as healthy as they've ever been," he said, "Ken Keith is back, and Ron Sell is healthy and got a save for us Monday."

Last Monday's5-4 victory over Brushtown, Pa., was done in typical Cardinal fashion, with confidence and composure. Trailing, 4-3, in the seventh, the Cards got back-to-back solo homers from David Crouse and Scott Thomson.

Crouse and Thomson have carried much of the offensive load. Crouse is batting .456 with 10 homers and 41 runs batted in. Thomson, after finishing up his senior year at Old Dominion University, joined the club midway through the season and has a .421 average with six homers and 27 RBI in just 13 games.

"The addition of Thomson has madeDave Crouse and everybody else that much better. He may be considered the icing on the cake, but the cake and icing were already here so I guess he might be the candles," Bosley said.

Other key additionshave been former Elks catcher Bruce Rupp and pitcher Scott Sharp, a Liberty High grad, who has improved a pitching staff that was the league's best last year.

Bryan Harman remains the pitching ace, posting a 5-0 record with a stingy 1.09 earned run average. He is making astrong bid for his second straight SPL Pitcher of the Year honor.

Sharp is 4-1 so far this season with a 2.77 ERA, and Chris Grove is a perfect 5-0 with a 4.26 ERA. And don't forget Sell, who matches Harman pitch for pitch.

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