Saturday night the Oak Park and River Forest softball team gave a graduation present to its families, friends, and classmates: The long pursued Class AA State championship. In one of the longest championship games in Illinois history, the Huskies defeated four-time State champion Moline 4-1 in 11 innings at Eastside Centre in East Peoria.
The championship win was not easy. Moline has been a powerhouse in the state, making nine title game appearances and winning four titles. In 2000, the Maroons defeated OPRF in the quarterfinals. This year OPRF was the only team to score in Peoria against the dominating Moline pitchers and excellent defense. The Huskies took advantage of every Moline error and their bats ended up ruling the day.
This was the first State title for the Huskies although they reached the Elite Eight in four of the last five years. Two years ago the Huskies finished third, and last year they placed second when Lake Park rallied from a six-run deficit to win 8-6.
"We remembered last year," said third baseman Kealan Waldron, "but we didn't really think about it or worry about it. Last year was different."
OPRF head coach Mel Kolbusz gave credit to the players as he has done all year long, explaining, "We finally did it, we finally got it done. The kids who played this year did a fabulous job and all the credit goes to them."
The Maroons scored first in the fourth, but the Huskies tied the game in the sixth when senior Stephanie Bernthal scored on a wild pitch moments after junior Aly Euler bowled over Maroons catcher Ashley Clement in a close play at the plate. Euler was called out on the play.
For the next four innings, pitching and solid fielding prevailed with neither team able to score.
In the top of the 11th, the Huskies seniors appeared to remember they had somewhere to be on Sunday‚Ä"their graduation. Bernthal reached first on an error and advanced to third on Samantha Pehlke's bunt and Erika Rosenwinkel's infield out. The two-out rally got serious when the Huskies started driving the ball to the outfield. Jessica Rigas got her second hit of the game to score Bernthal for the winning run. Waldron had a line shot to center, and Ann Schraufnagel drove the ball to right, giving the Huskies two insurance runs.
"I feel great, really great. I got very excited (in the 11th) when Jessica got that single but I knew we had to keep hitting, that you always need more runs," said Waldron, who will join former star player Maura Lund at Seton Hall in the fall.
OPRF's winning pitcher Seana Stillson stayed strong and focused for 11 straight innings, allowing just five hits and a single earned run. Stillson was remarkably accurate on the mound, striking out seven, and yielding no walks. The freshman hurler said she hadn't tired despite the extra innings.
"I know that I have to face the batters one at a time and concentrate on the next pitch and not the last one, " she said. "My curve was working pretty well and that gave me a lot of confidence."
OPRF downed Lake Park 4-1 in the semifinals on Saturday morning, avenging a semifinal loss to the Lancers in 2003. Junior Holly Roadruck earned the victory with a masterful performance, throwing only 62 pitches and allowing just three hits.
Rigas was selected the tournaments MVP and five Huskies were named to the State finals All-tournament team: Stillson, Waldron, Bernthal, Rigas, and Rosenwinkel.
"We had 10 seniors on this team and they knew what it was like last year," said Kolbusz. "The players deserve all the credit for this."