By Marty Farmer
Whenever the Oak Park and River Forest and Lyons Township high school baseball teams meet on the field, it's special and typically meaningful in terms of regular season or playoff implications. With all due respect to Hinsdale Central, York and the rest of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division squads, the Lions and Huskies have the league's best rivalry.
Both programs boast remarkable winning traditions: Each school has won three IHSA state titles, while OPRF has won six IHSBCA summer state championships with LTHS claiming four.
Since 2000, in fact, the Lions own two IHSA state titles (2003, 2011) and all four of their summer state crowns (2003, 2004, 2006, 2012), while the Huskies won an IHSA state championship in 2012 along with a pair of state runner-up finishes in 2001 and 2008.
In their lone series meeting this spring, the perennial powerhouse teams have split a pair of games with the tiebreaker scheduled for Monday at OPRF (post-deadline). After OPRF pulled out a 3-2 win against the Lions on Friday, the teams met again in Western Springs on Saturday for a rematch. Considering the back-and-forth nature of the rivalry, LTHS predictably bounced back to eke out a 2-1 victory.
"I think we have played good these first two games, but we haven't played our best," said OPRF first baseman Keith Rogalla, who has signed with Creighton.
Both of Saturday's starting pitchers, the Huskies' Ryan Chancellor and Lions' Tom Hickey turned in gems with five strikeouts apiece. Locked in a 1-1 pitchers' duel heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, LTHS (5-5) scratched across the decisive run.
LTHS catcher Sam Heilenbach (2-for-3) led off the inning with a sharp single to left field. Quinton Hughes, who replaced Heilenbach as a pinch runner, advanced to second base on a wild pitch. After Chancellor struck out Charlie Harrigan, Connor Pavletic hit a bloop single to short center field putting runners on first and second with one out. LTHS shortstop Sam Cybulski hit a grounder which took a bad hop to his OPRF counterpart Jeremy Gaines. The ball squirted by Gaines scoring Hughes with the go-ahead run for a 2-1 lead.
"When I'm at the plate with runners in scoring position, I'm just focused hitting the ball hard and making the defense work," Cybulski said. "This was a huge win for us and [now] we'll see if we can go to their place and get a win. Oak Park is our biggest baseball rival; it's always intense when we play."
In the seventh inning, the Huskies put runners on the corners with one out but couldn't cash in on the scoring opportunity as the hard-throwing Hickey bore down and retired the Huskies. OPRF scored its only run in the sixth when Rice led off with a double. After Sam Cottingham-Beard bunted him to third, third baseman Ryan Fish laced a triple scoring Rice to knot the score at 1-1. Rice paced the Huskies with a 3-for-3 effort at the plate.
Surprisingly, offense has been an issue at times for the Huskies (4-6), who have three runs or less scored in seven games. OPRF opened the season by splitting four games in Miami, and has gone 2-4 since returning to Illinois.
"The season has started slow for us," Rogalla said. "I know we'll get hot when it counts and be hard to beat in the postseason. This team has yet to see its best days and we will make a run for the state championship."
The Huskies also eagerly await the return of head coach Chris Ledbetter, who underwent spinal fusion surgery in February.
"It's been difficult to stay away, but my coaches have done a tremendous job with the club," Ledbetter said earlier this season. "Hopefully, I'll be cleared by my doctor to at least sit in the dugout sometime this week and we'll go from there."