It was the first day of softball practice, and Hylton freshman Brittany Bingham did not feel at all like a full-fledged Bulldog. She was joining an experienced team that did not need her to carry it. That was the good news. The flip side was that the Bulldogs needed a pitcher to replace four-year starter Kelli Wilson, and Bingham was about the only option.
She knew it and they knew it.
"The first practice I was a little unsure, I was like, 'What am I doing here?' " Bingham said Friday after throwing a 1-0 road win over Gar-Field that enabled Hylton to clinch the regular season Cardinal District title and earn an automatic Northwestern Region tournament berth.
"For the first couple of weeks, I really didn't believe that I should be there. Then people were telling me, 'No, you can do it, you're that good.' "
She likely will get no argument from the Gar-Field batters. She allowed five hits in a 4-1 win April 16 and three hits in the win Friday. She is not overpowering, totaling just six strikeouts in the two games. She has relied on a defense that committed just one error in the two games, not counting her own errant throw in the first matchup.
"We were kind of nervous about whether we could have a strong pitcher or not, but Brittany got rid of a lot of the worries that we had," Hylton junior Amanda D'Attilio said after the game Friday. "I play center field, so I can see if she hits her spots and stuff. It was only like two pitches [today] I think she didn't hit her spot."
For the season, Bingham has posted a 1.27 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 46 walks in 99 innings.
"Brittany has gotten better every game," Bulldogs Coach Desiree Hayden said. "She really has. In every aspect of it. She's definitely exceeded my expectations. We were really just hoping to be able to have somebody that was going to put the ball over the plate and give us a chance. And she's done far more than that."
As capable as Gar-Field (9-9-1, 3-2 Cardinal) is -- the Indians own two wins over previously ranked Osbourn Park -- the balance of power seems to have shifted in the Cardinal District. Hylton snapped the Indians' string of five straight district titles last year and has beaten them twice this season. More than anything, the Bulldogs' subdued reaction after the win Friday might have indicated that they now expect such triumphs.
Hylton scored the game's lone run in the top of the third. D'Attilio hit a roller up the middle and took second on a single to right by Kristin Nickloy. Sophomore catcher Sarah Himan reached on an infield hit that drew a throw to third, allowing D'Attilio to score.
The Bulldogs (9-6, 5-0) stranded nine runners, including three in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with one out.
Gar-Field did not get a runner past second. Junior Sarah Malene reached on an infield hit with one out in the sixth, and Jade Ing, honored before the game as the Indians' lone senior, worked a full-count walk. Bingham got the next two batters to pop out and line out to junior shortstop Alex Roderick.