By virtue of edging out West Suburban (Silver) Conference archrival Lyons Township 4-3 in the state final last season, the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball team proudly enters this spring as the Class 4A defending state champs.
That historic designation is certainly music to everybody's ears around the storied OPRF baseball program especially head coach Chris Ledbetter, albeit with a small clarification.
"We are not defending our state title because there's nothing to defend. We're not giving it back," Ledbetter said about the 2012 Huskies squad, which finished 31-9-1. "That group of kids [from last season], many have moved on and many return, but this is a new season. This is a new group but they're all part of the program that won it all last year. We're excited about creating new memories with this year's team.
"Obviously, last season was special and we're very proud and appreciative of winning state. Every year, we try to keep our pitchers healthy, position ourselves for a strong postseason run."
So to paraphrase Shakespeare with a slight twist, easy rests the head that wears the crown in Class 4A baseball.
Despite the loss of several players, including All-State performers Jack Picchiotti (Purdue) and Zach Weigel (Seton Hall), Ledbetter welcomes back a ton of talent poised for another strong campaign.
First baseman/pitcher Nick Kowalczuk, who has signed with Michigan, and 6-foot-4 outfielder/pitcher Alex Rice are both outstanding players capable of contributing in multiple ways. Junior Sam Cottingham-Beard is another key returner who will pitch, provide a good bat and patrol a corner outfield position.
Senior centerfielder Patrick Clifford is slated as the Huskies' leadoff man.
"Patrick is really fast and puts the ball in play for us," Ledbetter said. "He changes the dynamic for us. If he gets on base, count on stolen bases."
Ledbetter is also excited about the abilities of middle infielders Henry Pine and Jacob Harris, along with Austin Cone, Dan Hart, Keith Rogalla, Andrew Donlan and Patrick Corrigan. Charlie Fencik, the nephew of former Chicago Bears player Gary Fencik, returns fresh off a solid junior campaign. Senior catcher Dain Mrozek is back, flanked by junior backstops John Ernest and Wiley Lauerman.
Senior Henry Cappell, who returns with the most innings thrown on the Huskies' pitching rotation, anchors a deep stable of arms, including Rice, Kowalczuk, Cottingham-Beard, Sam Munno, Jack Badger, Ian Luttrell, Ryan Chancellor, Chris Rumoro and Jack Mueller.
"I like our pitching because we have some experience and depth," Ledbetter said. "Offensively, we'll need Clifford to set the tone as our leadoff hitter and also get some good at-bats from the lower end of our lineup."
Ledbetter, who has also guided the Huskies to state runner-up finishes in 2001 and 2008, views the upcoming season in proper prospective.
"It's high school sports, so our season is not defined by whether we win a state title or not," he said. "It's about our players having positive relationships with each other and their coaches. It's about working hard, having fun and battling out there with your teammates, win or lose."
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