CHICAGO HEIGHTS | Facing its toughest test of the season on Tuesday, Marian Catholic did not get off to the start it was looking for against Oak Forest.
Mistakes -- both mental and physical -- led to a pair of Bengals runs in the first inning and put the Spartans behind the 8-ball right away. But Marian bounced back with single runs in each of the first four innings and senior pitcher Becca Gray did the rest.
Gray held the powerful Oak Forest lineup in check from there, locking up a 4-3 win for the Times No. 2 Spartans.
"Oak Forest is an excellent team, (but) we just keep battling," Marian coach Kerri Evans said. "We beat Lockport last week, too, so we're playing really well right now."
Things looked grim for Marian (17-4) after the first half-inning. A 2-0 deficit can seem huge against a pitcher like Oak Forest's Emily Norton, an all-stater who led the Bengals to a state championship in 2009 and is headed for Radford University next year.
But Gray proved to be the Spartans' catalyst as she led off the first inning with a triple to left field. With Evans' arms raised in the air, Gray rounded second at full speed and slid into third just under the tag.
"Yeah, she ran through the stop sign," Evans said with a grin. "We talked about it though (and) it's all good.
"When you see Becca lead off and get on like that, everyone gets excited and says, ‘Hey, we can hit this girl.' And we did, so that absolutely sparked us."
Gray said she went up to the plate looking to get the taste of the first half-inning out of her mouth.
"We're just a team that never gives up," Gray said. "We always play our best."
Gray's battery mate, catcher Becca Stanton, tied the game in the next inning when she took the first pitch she saw from Norton over the left-field fence.
Gray, who went 3-for-3 in the game and was hit by a pitch, scored the go-ahead run in the third when Norton was called for an illegal pitch. Jennifer LaBella drove in an insurance run -- ultimately the game-winner -- with her fourth-inning double.
Meanwhile, the Spartans' ace found her groove in the circle. With her changeup particularly effective on this day, Gray struck out seven Bengals and allowed just one run and two hits after the first inning.
"I just knew that I had to do my job and keep myself focused on that," Gray said of her ability to rebound after the first inning." I knew (the defense) would back me up."
"She's been pitching big games for us all year long and she did it again today," Evans said. "She was outstanding."