Burlington Central junior left-hander Brooke Gaylord had a tough act to follow Thursday, but she did so just like a veteran winner would.
Just 48 hours after freshman Emily Kisch shut down Marengo on 5 hits, Gaylord allowed the Indians just 3 singles and the host Rockets took advantage of some shoddy Marengo defense to beat the three-time defending Big Northern East softball champs 3-0 on windswept Rocket Hill.
The win gives Central (6-1, 2-0) the early upper hand in a conference that's been dominated by the Rockets and Marengo for the past 10-plus years. Central is seeking its first conference title since 2009. It's also the first time since 2009 the Rockets have swept the regular-season series from Marengo, which they could see again next month in the Class 3A Sycamore regional.
"We knew they'd come out playing hard, we just had to play harder," said Gaylord, who struck out six, walked one and hit one batter. "Our mindset today had to be more concentrated."
And as much as Rockets' veteran Hall of Fame coach Wade Maisto doesn't like to put a lot of stock in March and April games, he admitted his team's two wins this week over the 2011 Class 3A state champs and last year's state runner-up are about as big as it gets in April.
"I've never considered games in March and April to be all that important but we beat a very good team two games in a row," Maisto said. "Marengo and us know that we pretty much control our destiny with each other in this conference so, yeah, this is important.
"I think we can still improve in different areas and I think we can be better."
Central scored all the runs it would need in the bottom of the first inning, using just 1 hit, a walk and three Marengo errors to jump on top.
Gaylord and Melanie Gajewski led off the inning reaching on a throwing errors. With runners at second and third, Bekah Harnish's ground out scored courtesy runner Rebecca Roscher, then Gajewski scored when Marengo booted Lauren King's hard grounder. King went to second on a wild pitch and scored when Kisch laced a single to left field, giving the Rockets a 3-0 lead.
That was all Gaylord needed. With the exception of the top of the fourth inning she allowed Marengo (2-4, 0-2) only three baserunners and only one of them reached scoring position.
In the fourth, the Indians used a leadoff infield single from Abby Kissack and then a walk and a hit batter with two outs to load the bases. But Gaylord got a strikeout to get out of the jam and Marengo didn't get a runner into scoring position the rest of the day.
"I was excited to pitch against Marengo and I knew I had to bring it," Gaylord said. "I had confidence in myself and I trusted my team behind me."
Marengo senior Bethany Hart did a commendable job in the circle as well, holding the Rockets to 4 hits. She struck out three and walked one.
The win also set the bar a little higher for the Rockets, even though it's early in the season.
"Starting off (conference) with Marengo and beating them twice sets a higher expectation for us," Gaylord said. "We have to come out and make people beat us and not beat ourselves. We have new expectations for our team now to do even better."
Maisto lauded Gaylord's performance and agreed the bar may be a little higher now.
"She did a great job," Maisto said of Gaylord. "I've been on this field for enough years to know the crosswind can be more difficult on the hitter than the pitcher and Brooke was outstanding today. She hit her spots all day long. And, yeah, we might expect a little more now. It's early, but I really like the way we've started the season."