By Marty Farmer
Oak Park and River Forest vs. Lyons Township, one of the best baseball rivalries in the state, added another compelling, and occasionally heated, chapter during Saturday's regional final showdown. Host LTHS emerged with a 5-3 win over the Huskies, extending its winning streak to 17 games and advancing to the Reavis Sectional semifinals where St. Rita awaits on Wednesday, June 4 (at 4:30 p.m.).
The rivals established the intensity early as both teams took issue with calls from the umpiring crew.
LTHS (27-8) struck first offensively in the bottom of the second inning when Charlie Harrigan reached on an error and later scored on an RBI groundout by Brookfield's Buck Domabyl. The Huskies responded with a pair of runs in the top of the third, courtesy of RBI singles from sophomore shortstop Andrew Hennings and senior third baseman Alex Rice to take a 2-1 advantage. The Lions went ahead for good in their half of the third as OPRF starting pitcher Keith Rogalla struggled with his control, hitting a batter with a pitch, followed by three consecutive walks, the last free pass issued to Connor Pavletic, tying the game at 2-2.
OPRF reliever Sam Cottingham-Beard, who inherited a bases-loaded jam with no outs, did a reasonably good job allowing only two more runs the rest of the inning to keep the Huskies within striking range at 4-2. LTHS hit into a 6-4-3 double play which helped Cottingham-Beard's cause although he also threw a wild pitch which scored a run.
OPRF (21-16) scored once more in the fourth to make it 4-3. First baseman Ian Luttrell hit a one-out double. After advancing to third on a groundout, he scored on a wild pitch by LTHS starter Tom Hickey.
The errant throw by Hickey was one of the few mistakes the rangy 6-foot-4, 170-pound right-hander made against OPRF. Hickey (8-1, 1.10 ERA) tossed a complete game to earn the win, allowing two earned runs while striking out three and walking one batter.
"I'm nominating Tom Hickey as an all-state pitcher," LTHS coach George Ushela said. "He's a nice pitcher with composure and big upside. With his stature, once he puts a little bit more meat on his bones, he'll throw even harder. We haven't always played flawlessly behind him, but Hickey does a nice job of getting out of jams."
In the fifth, LTHS added an insurance run to go up 5-3 when Kyle Dilcher scored on a wild pitch by Cottingham-Beard with two outs and the bases loaded. Other than an infield single to Rogalla, Hickey held the Huskies hitless over the final two innings to clinch the 5-3 victory.
The postgame histrionics between the Lions and Huskies were nearly as intense as the on-field battle. After the final out, LTHS first baseman Sam Heilenbach (1-for-2, two walks) reportedly threw a baseball into the OPRF dugout which didn't sit well with the Huskies. Several players from both teams approached each other and exchanged verbal jabs around the pitcher's mound area, reminiscent of a 50-yard-line stare-down between Miami and FSU. Fortunately, the situation cooled down long enough for the traditional team handshake.
While OPRF coach Chris Ledbetter and LTHS coach George Ushela have repeatedly praised one another's programs over the years, Saturday's dust-up didn't sit well with either side.
"George runs a tremendous program and we've had a lot of battles through the years," Ledbetter said. "At the end of the game, however, when Heilenbach threw a ball at our dugout, that's uncalled for. [But] I wasn't going to allow my kids to walk off the field without shaking hands; this isn't the NBA where the Pistons walk off the court against the Bulls. We're all competitive coaches and players. It is what it is.
"More importantly, this is one of the finest group of young men I've been around. We didn't even address the baseball side of things after the game because I have a heavy heart, knowing several of these young men will be moving on."
Like Ledbetter, Ushela had an interesting and highly candid take Saturday's clash.
"Our rivalry has always been big and OPRF is a great baseball program," Ushela said. "Our three games during the regular season were heated. They argued about everything and [then] today when I argued a call, OPRF said, "Are we going to talk about everything?" I like playing OPRF but I don't like the shenanigans that go on."
Saturday's meeting marked the first postseason game between the Huskies and Lions since their 2012 Class 4A title game clash, won by OPRF 4-3. The Lions' victory Saturday snapped the Huskies' streak of 14 straight regional titles.
Collectively, the two legendary baseball programs claim five regular season state championships and 10 summer state titles. Next season's regular season series should be special, with perhaps a lingering touch of spice from this season.
"It's always fun to play Oak Park," LTHS shortstop Sam Cybulski said. "We have a lot of respect for that program and those players. Both teams are very competitive."