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By Marty Farmer
His teammates warm-heartedly refer to him as "Big Nick." At a chiseled 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, the nickname obviously fits Oak Park and River Forest senior first baseman Nick Kowalczuk. The sobriquet might as well be expanded to "Big Game Nick," as the Michigan-bound slugger has shown a penchant for providing the big hit in several OPRF victories.
Saturday was another perfectly clutch case in point as Kowalczuk drove in all three runs during the Huskies' riveting 3-2 win over visiting Loyola in the OPRF Regional championship game. OPRF leftfielder Sam Cottingham-Beard threw out the potential game-tying run at the plate to ice the OPRF victory. Winning pitcher Henry Cappel went the distance and struck out seven as the surging Huskies claimed their 14th straight regional championship.
For his part, Kowalczuk staked OPRF to a 1-0 lead on a sacrifice fly.
After the Ramblers went up 2-1 in the top of the sixth, the Huskies regained the lead for good on Kowalczuk's timely two-run double that rocketed over the head of center fielder Matt Fallon. According to OPRF baseball coach Chris Ledbetter, the revealing part of "Big Nick's" huge at bat actually occurred on the previous pitch.
"Nick is a really good bunter so we gave him one shot to get it down," Ledbetter said. "After that [bunt attempt], we put a double steal on and Nick jumped on a fastball depositing it into centerfield. The fact he was willing to lay down a bunt though, that's the selfless play.
"Nick realizes it doesn't matter if you're our leadoff man or No. 3, 4 or 5 hitter. Our team believes it's about anybody doing it any way at any time to win baseball games."
While the Huskies are loaded with quality hitters including Alex Rice, Cottingham-Beard, Keith Rogalla, Charlie Fencik and Pat Rumoro, Kowalczuk's hitting prowess in the playoffs just might hold the key to another run at a state championship.
"If Nick is hitting the ball well, we're going to be a really dangerous team," Ledbetter said. "I like our chances of making noise in [this] state tournament with a hot Nick Kowalczuk.
"Nick is one of the finest kids I've ever coached. He's the same guy on and off the field."
The Nick Kowalczuk "pick to click" template has already been established with several stellar hitting displays during his four-year varsity career at OPRF.
"[Last season] Nick had a game-winning hit against New Trier and our only RBI against Highland Park," Ledbetter said. "At times, Nick has had brief patches where he struggled and pressed a bit, but it just takes a little bit of confidence to get him going."
The most memorable game this season for the Oak Park native came against Glenbard West. A locked in Kowalczuk swatted three homers in one game against the Hilltoppers. He is hitting .312 with seven home runs and 32 RBIs on the season.
"Every one of the pitches I hit for a home run was a mistake, and I took advantage of it," Kowalczuk said. "Glenbard West walked me on my third at bat which was a bit disappointing. It felt amazing to hit three [home runs] in one game."
His teammates are never surprised by Kowalczuk's colossal clouts around the baseball field.
"Big Nick is a great kid and our clutch hitter in every big situation," Cottingham-Beard said. "You can always count on Big Nick Kowalczuk."
Rogalla, one of Kowalczuk's best friends on the team, also praised his talented buddy.
"Nick is a great leader and our big man when we need something good to happen," Rogalla said. "He's also a good student who's going to Michigan, so he's obviously doing something right."
While the Huskies' immediate focus is another extended postseason push, Kowalczuk is also looking forward to attending school and playing baseball next season in Ann Arbor.
"When Michigan offered me, it was a no brainer," Kowalczuk said. "The academic and athletic tradition at Michigan is unbelievable. I like the [baseball] coaches' philosophy there, too."
At Michigan, Kowalczuk and Lyons Township High School senior ace pitcher Keith Lehmann will be roommates. Kowalczuk is considering Kinesiology or Sports Management as areas of academic interest at Michigan.
The Huskies (24-10) take on New Trier on May 29 (4:30 p.m.) in a sectional semifinal at Niles West. With a win, OPRF would advance to Saturday's 10:30 a.m. championship game against the winner of Elk Grove vs. Maine South.
"This time of year is what our program is all about," Kowalczuk said. "We're playing pretty good baseball. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Regardless, the Huskies' gentle giant has enjoyed his time at OPRF.
"I wrestled for a year, played some flag football with some of the guys from the baseball team," Kowalczuk said. "After my freshman year, I decided to concentrate on baseball. I've gotten a great education and made a lot of friends at OPRF. I'm proud of my school."