By Brad Spencer
OPRF baseball coach Chris Ledbetter received an unusual text not long after his team slipped past Highland Park 1-0 to win the Rockford Supersectional 1 championship and advance to the Class 4A State Finals at Silver Cross Field in Joliet this weekend.
Still reeling from a wild string of postseason play that included a massive come-from-behind victory and games where his team struggled to hit but found ways to win regardless, Ledbetter thought nothing of the message glowing on his phone. Then, he realized who it was from.
George Ushela has been the head baseball coach at Lyons Township since 2001, nearly as long as Ledbetter has been the head coach at OPRF. Ushela has coached two teams to state championship victories, including last year's squad that scored an 8-3 win over Providence. Ledbetter has coached two teams to second place at state — in 2001 and 2008.
If the two West Suburban (Silver) Conference teams win their respective semifinal games on Friday, they could meet in the state championship on Saturday (5 p.m.). That would be something, considering neither team won the conference title this season. That distinction went to York, a team that didn't even make it to its own regional title game.
If OPRF and Lyons both lose their respective semifinal games, they could play each other for something called third place, also on Saturday (3 p.m.). But right now no one is interested in playing in a game for third place.
OPRF still has to get through Fox Park's Grant, a team that has made school history with wins in a season and advancement to the state finals. But Lyons isn't far from the minds of Huskie players, not to mention their head coach. Ledbetter is not a skipper who makes cliché comments, for instance something along the lines of, "We are taking this one game at a time." He's honest. He'll tell you what's what, a part of his character likely gleaned from legendary OPRF coach Jack Kaiser, who Ledbetter both played for and coached under.
"It's impossible not to think about Lyons a little bit," Ledbetter said on Tuesday after enduring a sleepless night where adrenalin was the culprit leading to his insomnia. "Along the way we have beaten some quality teams, so we are not trying to hide the fact who will be at state. The barbecue is on Thursday, and that familiar foe will be in the room. If we both get out of the semis, it'll be 'Oh, what a night.'"
It's a good, clean rivalry between OPRF and Lyons. There's mutual respect for players and coaches in both dugouts, evident in the text message on Ledbetter's phone Monday night. Ushela congratulated the Huskies for advancing to the state finals. Ledbetter went to return the message with a "right back at ya" comment. But Ushela and his Lions had yet to begin their supersectional game that night.
"I thought that was really neat that he took the time to congratulate us," said Ledbetter. "I assumed they had won already, too, but it wasn't the case. It just shows the level of class in our conference."
All the more reason to hope these two teams meet in the state championship on Saturday.