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Region native Marley Hanlon has Illinois-Chicago dancing into NCAA Tournament
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Region native Marley Hanlon has Illinois-Chicago dancing into NCAA Tournament

The circle is Marley Hanlon’s sanctuary. It’s her comfort zone, her escape.

It was never more so than this season.

The Illinois-Chicago ace has faced a lot of adversity this year. The circle was her best friend, the familiar face she could lean on.

“This season has tested me in a lot of ways,” the Hanover Central grad said. “I have never thrown so many innings in consecutive days (Hanlon won three consecutive games in the Horizon League Tournament). It was a mental toughness challenge to find a way to get the job done even through fatigue.”

Overall, the senior hurler said the season has been a wild ride, but one with a trip to an NCAA Regional as a part of it.

The Flames (29-21) open at No. 8 Missouri (38-15) Friday in the Columbia Regional. The game will be livestreamed at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN3.

“I was out from March 7 to April 2 because one of my close family members passed away, so I went home for the funeral and had to quarantine for two weeks,” Hanlon said. “When I came back I told (head coach Lynn Curylo) that I had such a fire to be given the ball. In the circle is where I feel the most confident, and I wanted to go out with a bang. The Horizon League Tournament arrived and I was given that opportunity.”

Hanlon threw 21 consecutive innings, allowing only six earned runs as the No. 3-seeded Flames knocked off top-ranked Youngstown State 5-4 and then-No. 2-seeded Oakland twice (5-1 and 4-3) to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Hanlon, a left-handed pitcher, was named the tournament’s MVP and also earned a nod onto the All-Tournament Team for the third time.

“Every time I step on the mound, I find something to get fired up about,” said Hanlon, who has 27 career wins. “I’ve come to realize that pitching ‘angry’ has always worked for me. It took me a long time to find the confidence in myself, but I finally found it about a year ago. Once I trusted the process, respected the hard work I’ve put in over the years, I was able to master the competitor mindset.”

One thing that Hanlon came to peace with was she’s not a power pitcher. She has thrown 105 1/3 innings with just 38 strikeouts this season. Big deal — she’s also 12-5 with a 2.22 ERA.

“I know that I am a weak-contact pitcher, and don’t try to be anyone but me,” Hanlon said. “I think it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what other pitchers are doing, and you tend to lose yourself in the process. I know when I step on the mound that I focus on putting the most spin on the ball whether it’s my curveball or my changeup. Once I believed in my heart that I could get the job done, everything else followed with that same confidence.”

Hanlon has nine complete games and a save this season. She’s also threw no-hitter against Rider.

“Marley did a tremendous job at the Horizon League Tournament. She trusted her defense, which gave our team a chance,” Curylo said. “She was fired up from the first pitch and kept the pedal to the floor until the last out.

“Marley is a true competitor. She is always hungry for the ball in the circle. She pitches like she has something to prove. She rarely backs down from a big-time hitter.”

If Hanlon’s career ends in Columbia, she has no regrets. She’s loved her time at UIC. She’s finishing up her bachelor’s degree in English with plans to teach at the high school level. If she hangs up the cleats, she said she’ll continue to give back to the game whether it’s pitching lessons or coaching.

“I can’t even count the amount of support I have received throughout my 15 years of playing and would love to be that person for the next generation,” Hanlon said.

In other words, the Flame still burns.

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