The Chicago area might see more snow and freezing rain this year, but bad weather doesn't bother the Oak Park and River Forest softball team. It's finally time to play ball! Next week another season starts for the talented Huskies who compiled a 35-7 record last year while making their fourth trip downstate in the last five years.
Last season ended in a tough, exciting championship game under a blazing sun where the Huskies were defeated 8-6 by a powerful Lockport Township team, who won its fourth State title.
Reflecting on that final game, Huskies' head coach Mel Kolbusz, now in his 13th season with the team, said, "It was a great game, and we were one pitch away from winning it all. Of course we were disappointed to get so close to our goal and fall short, but I was very proud of the girls, the way they played.
"We didn't give that game away, they just beat us. Samantha Findlay, who hit the final home run, is one of the best hitters in the state."
Last year's accomplishments were nothing new to the Huskies, winners of 12 West Suburban (Silver) Conference championships.
Explaining his team's consistent success, Kolbusz said, "The secret is having really good players with lots of experience. We have two excellent feeder programs, the Windmills and the Huskies, so the girls walk in the door with very strong skills and a good sense for the game. They are determined and want to make something of themselves. OPRF has a winning tradition and the players want to continue it. We teach them to play the game we want, and we've had a lot of success lately."
Kolbusz shares credit for the program's success with coach Jim d'Agostino.
"He's like a co-head coach. He runs the defense and it's a pleasure for us to work together," said Kolbusz of his cohort. "We know what we need to do in practice and in the games, so we just get it done. Coach d'Agostino deserves a lot of the credit for what our teams have accomplished."
Turning to his expectations for this season Kolbusz explained, "We have 10 seniors on the team and I'm counting on their leadership. They know what I expect from them, and what they can do. We have a lot of experience on this team and as long as they don't get a case of senioritis we should do very well."
Kolbusz will likely go with either senior Jane Nightengale or junior Holly Roadruck on the mound this season. Nightengale pitched her way to a 5-1 record with barely an ERA as a reserve last year. Roadruck finished 14-2 for the junior varsity squad. Both replace the graduated Maura Lund (15-3) and Leah Ansell (12-1).
"If they throw strikes and we get some hits, we'll be in good shape to win some games," said Kolbusz of his pitching duo.
The potential for strong hitting is another reason OPRF may indeed stay in the hunt for a State title this season. Five of the six players who hit above .300 last season return to the lineup. Leading the charge is power hitter Kealan Waldron, who had eight of the team's 15 home runs, tied the school record of 38 RBIs in a single season, and finished the year with a .355 average.
The other four fingers in the Huskies' fistful of returning hitters are outfielder Caitlin Morocco (.310), shortstop Jessica Rigas (.312), first basemen Ann Schraufnagel (.327), and second basemen Kate Ziegler (.324).
Stephanie Bernthal is another consistent hitter for the Huskies. The outfielder scattered 30 hits in 38 games last season, including two in the State title game. Erika Rosenwinkel can be counted on as well. Rosenwinkel, expected to be behind the plate again this season, nailed seven doubles last year.
The Huskies are one of four Illinois teams invited to the prestigious Wendy's Classic tournament again this year. The tournament will be held on April 14-15 in Ohio where some of the top teams in the nation will gather.
"Twenty four teams are invited, and we're pleased to return for the fourth time. The organizers have given us two challenging games Friday night against Florida teams with State championships, so that will be a great experience. The games will help us prepare for the season and hopefully another trip downstate."
The season opens with an away game Monday at Leyden. The first home game is scheduled for Wednesday, March 23 at 4:30 p.m. against area-rival Trinity.
Key returners: Kealan Waldron, Stephanie Bernthal, Erika Rosenwinkel, Ann Schraufnagel
2004 record (finish): 35-7, lost to Lockport Township in Class AA State championship
Outlook: The pitching is a bit shaky, but the offense looks as powerful as ever.
Coach's quote: "The secret is having really good players with lots of experience."