Visitors to the Gloucester County Institute of Technology can sample fare from the Fresh Start bakery or pamper themselves at the New Image salon.

They also can get their clocks cleaned on the softball field.

The Cheetahs are the story of the season in South Jersey: They've won 10 in a row, captured the first tournament victory in the history of the program, and advanced to next week's Group 1 sectional semifinals.

"It's a little bit unbelievable," said GCIT junior catcher Jessica Herbert, the team's leading hitter. "I guess around the state people are looking at us and wondering what it's all about. But we've worked hard to get here."

In some ways, GCIT is a typical career and technical school. The Sewell-based facility offers training in the automotive and cosmetolgy fields and the building trades, as well as culinary arts and performing arts, business, information technology, and health and medical sciences.

But the school's recent surge in popularity - on average, there are 600 applicants for 250 openings in the freshman class - has resulted in a pleasant by-product: sports success.

In the fall, the girls' volleyball team captured the first NJSIAA tournament victory in the history of the school. This spring, the golf team won the Group 1 state title as well as the Gloucester County championship.

And now, in its sixth year of varsity competition, the softball team is 17-6, assured of the first winning season in program history, and shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of traditional Group 1 powers Gloucester, Pennsville and New Egypt in the sectional semifinals.

"We're not a name you normally would mention with those other three," said GCIT coach John Holland, who is in his fourth season. "But we're starting to get some respect."

Holland said the program has been building to this point. The Cheetahs went 13-16 last season and just missed qualifying for the state tournament.

But the team has made the big leap this season, thanks in large part to the development of sophomore pitcher Krysti Maronski, who fired a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts in GCIT's 5-0 victory over Woodbury in Thursday's Group 1 quarterfinals.

"She was throwing really hard," Herbert said. "She was amazing."

Said Holland: "She's come out, guns ablazing, all year."

Competing in the Tri-County Classic Division, which is known for strong softball, GCIT has lost twice to Pennsville and Gloucester, two of the top 10 teams in South Jersey. The Cheetahs also have split with Salem and lost a non-division game to Gloucester Catholic, another top-10 program.

Ironically, Holland said a loss might have marked his team's breakthrough: A 10-inning, 1-0 loss to traditional Group 1 state contender Gloucester worked wonders for the Cheetahs' confidence - and for their reputation.

"That was a moral victory for us," said Holland, whose fourth-seeded team will face top-seeded New Egypt in Tuesday's semifinals.

GCIT has only one senior on the roster, second baseman Dominique Giorgianni, and just three juniors. Maronski, who plays for the under-18 Mystics Gold ASA travel team, is typical of the new breed of Cheetah: a highly successful young athlete who looks to continue her career at GCIT.

GCIT athletic director Jamie Dundee said the softball team's success has "put us on the map" and helped inspire athletic-minded youngsters to consider the school as an alternative to traditional high schools.

"We're starting to attract a different kind of athlete," Dundee said. "The true athletes are starting to apply to this school."

Herbert, who grew up in East Greenwich and now lives in Logan, was ahead of the curve. She also can hit the curve. She was a top middle-school softball player, but opted to attend GCIT for its culinary-arts program.

"I thought this school was all about academics and that sports wasn't important," said Herbert, who is batting .528. "But we've got a bunch of girls who are really competitive and play with heart and passion.

"Some people have the wrong idea about us. They think they can take us lightly. If you do that, we're going to bring it to you."

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.