Marist rules over Illinois softball for 2nd time since 2012.
By Anthony Nasella
Every sports program sets goals for itself at the start of a season.
Depending on the team, those may be modest in nature. Sure, everyone says winning a state title is the main objective, but the truth is only a handful of squads have a realistic chance to achieve such rarified status and therefore must adjust their sights downward a bit.
For Marist softball players, however, shooting for the top was not only a reasonable aspiration but an attainable one as well. The RedHawks made it so on Saturday in East Peoria, where they squeezed out a 1-0 victory over Lincoln-Way East at EastSide Centre that gave them the Class 4A championship for the second time in four seasons.
That win followed a pair of come-from-behind triumphs. Marist, which will carry a 28-game unbeaten streak into 2016, edged Oak Park-River Forest 2-1 in Friday’s semifinal and slipped past Downers Grove South 5-4 in last Tuesday’s Benedictine Supersectional.
What made this latest title particularly noteworthy is that it came under the leadership of a rookie coach. Colleen Biebel took over the reins of the RedHawks’ highly successful softball program from Denise Bromberek, who had guided Marist to its 2012 crown.
“No first-year coach at Marist has ever won a state championship,” school president Brother Hank Hammer said during a welcome-home celebration on Saturday. “And isn’t it wonderful that it happened with a woman’s sports team here in a formerly all-male high school? This is something we would have never dreamed about years ago.”
Current players definitely dreamt about it, though, prior to the start of the 2015 campaign.
“We talked about this in March and set goals at the beginning of the year,” Biebel said. “We said we wanted to win [the East Suburban Catholic] conference and win state, and each girl did not take one step back the whole year. We stayed focused and determined and I could not be prouder of them.
“They’re a mentally tough group of girls. They knew they had to get the job done, and if one didn’t do it then another would. We really took things an inning at a time this season.”
While each of its last three victories came by one run, Marist’s championship-game clash with the Griffins may have redefined the term “nail-biter.” The RedHawks (36-4-2) managed just two hits, but one of them was a triple by pitcher Zariya Gonzalez, who then tallied the contest’s lone run in the second inning by racing home on Vanessa Villasenor’s sacrifice fly.
From there Gonzalez maintained control as she stranded five runners and struck out four. Outfielder Brooke Wilson, who also played on Marist’s 2012 state-winning club, supported Gonzalez with four catches.
“My defense always backs me up,” Gonzalez said. “It feels good to have them behind me catching every ball and making every play. And when somebody didn’t do their job, another teammate picked them up.”
Gonzalez, who won 28 of 32 decisions this spring, said she relished the challenge of having to perform in a tense situation.
“I thought about the pressure the 2012 team had when they won state and I just wanted to be in that position,” Gonzalez said. “I was pretty much in a groove in those final two games and I knew I had to focus on every pitch and just get the job done. We all just wanted to win state and we knew we had to be laid back and positive about the game.”
Biebel wasn’t surprised by either Gonzalez’s handiwork or that of her team as a whole.
“She had her stuff -- [if] I asked for a pitch on the plate or outside, she would hit it,” Biebel said of Gonzalez. “[And if] I’d ask for a changeup, low and inside, she would hit it. She hit every one of her spots and was just stellar. Zariya was hungry for a state championship and she was not going to take anything less.
“Everyone was making the plays, especially in those last two games. It was not an easy ride to get down there and defense is what really pulled us through. We had to play tough defense.”
Wilson, the first female athlete in school history to be a two-time state champion, said the two triumphant clubs “were definitely two very different teams, but both teams put it together at the right time.”
Actually, the 2015 RedHawks rarely failed to be at their best as evidenced by their record. The 2012 contingent, however, sat at .500 well into the season before embarking on a late charge that resulted in 12 straight victories, the last, of course, being the championship-clinching encounter.
“Our first year it was definitely unexpected,” Wilson said of the title. “We got hot in the postseason, which really helped us. This year we were driven to achieve that [preseason] goal of winning state.”
Biebel was grateful for Wilson’s presence.
“Brooke was the No. 2 hitter on that  team and she knew what the experience was like and was able to share [it with the other players],” Biebel said.
In order to punch their ticket to the finale, the RedHawks had to rally against Oak Park-River Forest on Friday. Paige Egan’s fifth-inning RBI single that knocked in Alexis Rogers proved to be the difference for Marist.
Egan had also stroked the game-winning hit versus Downers South three days earlier. That chopper past the infield was good for two RBI and handed the Mustangs only their second setback in 37 games.
“I wanted to put the ball in play,” Egan said, referring to her clutch hit in the supersectional. “I wanted to make sure I was able to do something. I didn't know it would go through when I hit it, but I did know the field had a lot of bounce to it.”
“Paige is our little slapper and she came through with three big RBIs for us in the playoffs,” Bielbel said.
Egan’s hit on Tuesday capped the RedHawks’ rebound from what had once been a 4-2 deficit against Downers South. Marist also trailed 1-0 on Friday before overtaking the Huskies.
“We’ve been strong in making comebacks this year,” Egan said. “We just want to try to win the inning [and] we were relentless in doing that. We picked each other up at the plate and we were sure something [good] was going to happen.
“We knew we had a good team and that Coach Biebel is a good coach. It was a matter of bringing it all together [this season] and becoming one.”
Gonzalez held Oak Park-River Forest in check after surrendering an early homer. She fanned three and stranded five baserunners. Earning the pitching win against the Mustangs was Emily Reilly, who relieved Gonzalez in the third and allowed just two hits the rest of the way.
“Emily Reilly helped us get to state,” Biebel said. “She didn’t get the chance to pitch in Peoria because Zariya was so stellar, but she saved the [playoff] games against Mother McAuley and Downers Grove South. That was huge for us.”
While Biebel admitted to some anxious moments along the way because “the teams that we played were amazing teams,” she said her athletes’ resolve provided comfort.
“The girls’ energy, focus, drive and determination definitely helped me to keep calm and know that we were going to be focused on our task at hand,” Biebel said. “The girls executed when it was needed.”