Can OPRF go from rags to riches?

? Huskies smashing rag balls in preparation for State run.

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By BRAD SPENCER

So the weather hasn't been cooperative for baseball, that hasn't been a problem for Oak Park and River Forest. The Huskies have taken advantage of the availability of the fieldhouse in this blustery preseason, and the use of a rag ball developed by Easton has made indoor training much more productive for a team eager to improve on last year's successful season.

The rag ball weighs the same and has the same circumference as a baseball but is softer. OPRF head coach Chris Ledbetter said his team has been crushing the practice ball around the gym. That's a good thing, since the Huskies will be without two sluggers this season in Ruairi O'Connor and Eric Lisle. The circumstances behind the loss of these two players couldn't be more different. O'Connor graduated early to pursue a collegiate baseball career at Florida State University. The former Huskie, who started for OPRF his sophomore and junior seasons, is said to be doing well for the Seminoles. He belted a game-winning home-run last week. Lisle suffered a serious leg injury in January while skiing in Colorado. His high school baseball career is over but he may tryout as a walk on at Illinois or Michigan, two schools he's been accepted to on his academic merits alone.

"We've had time to adjust to O'Connor's departure, and we've done a pretty good job on getting people to step up to fill Eric's role in the lineup," said Ledbetter. "We're still strong everywhere."

Pitching is a major muscle for the Huskies. University of Texas signee Tim Dennehy returns to reprise his role as the team's ace. Last season the 6-foot-1-inch 190-pound lefthander went 7-3 with an ERA of 2.19 and helped lead the Huskies to a 28-13 overall record and a 14-4 West Suburban (Silver) Conference record, good for first place. Dennehy is considered a top 50 pitching prospect in the country and has been visited by several Major League Baseball scouts.

Backing up Dennehy on the mound is Illinois State-bound Ian Berger, who Ledbetter said will likely throw in Game 2 of conference double-headers. Others expected to see significant mound time include Villanova signee Matt McFolling, Sam Brashler, Adam Halla, Rick Foytik and Joe Froelich, also an occasional starting outfielder.

Bobby Fratto returns as this season's main bat. Fratto batted .340 as a designated hitting sophomore last season. He hit the game-winning homer against Lyons Township to win the conference title. McFolling, who led the team in home runs last season with six, is also expected to again contribute at the plate.

Shortstop duties fall to Mike Cunningham, who Ledbetter also calls his "first true leadoff hitter." Centerfield is solidified with Andrew Hagins, a junior.

Other players still competing for open positions as of late last week include Maine South transfer Ryan Spierowski and David Studer (catcher); Simon Noel, John Meacham, Brandon Lathon and Dave Thueson (left field); Andrew Blanco and Ty Legan (second base).

The Huskies will need all the hitting they can muster this season. Coupled with the loss of two of their power hitters, the competition in the WSC alone this season looks mighty.

The Truth magazine, a publication put together by minor league scouts, has many of the WSC teams ranked in the top 15 this season, including OPRF at third.

"There's never a dull moment in this conference," said Ledbetter.

There's never a dull moment in the conference or the postseason. Last year OPRF won its first sectional title in three years, before being knocked out of the playoffs by eventual State champ Notre Dame in the supersectional.

Both OPRF and cross-town rival Fenwick are trying to schedule a regular season game to be held at UIC. Dates kicked around have included May 13 and May 20. The two teams were set to meet last season at Alexian Field, home of the Schaumburg Flyers, but inclement weather forced a cancellation.

Weather permitting, the Huskies will open the season at Glenbard East on Monday (4:45 p.m.). The team's home opener is scheduled for March 23 against Joliet Township.

 

Key returners: Tim Dennehy, Ian Berger, Bobby Fratto, Matt McFolling

2004 record (finish): 28-13 overall, 14-4 in WSC, conference, regional, sectional champs

Outlook: The Huskies had much of the offseason to replace Ruairi O'Connor, who graduated early. But the loss of versatile starter Eric Lisle leaves a question mark at more than one position.

Coach's quote: "I feel we have the best one-two punch pitching wise in the toughest conference in the state."

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