By Brad Spencer
Mike Brennan had struck out three times in previous at bats when he came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning with bases loaded and the score tied 3-3 in Saturday night's Class 4A State Baseball Championship at Silver Cross Field in Joliet. It wasn't long after that the senior outfielder was at the bottom of a celebratory dog-pile.
Brennan jabbed a pitch that loped off his bat into right field and gave OPRF a 4-3 win over West Suburban (Silver) Conference rival Lyons Township and the program's first state title since 1981.
"It was the golden sombrero with the game winning hit; I'll take that any day," said Brennan.
Jack Picchiotti led off the final inning with his second triple of the night, this one going all the way to the right field wall on the ground that brought a roar from the crowd on the Huskies' side of the minor league stadium. It also sent Lyons Township coach George Ushela out to the mound to talk to his team. The result was intentionally walking both top hitters Nick Kowalczuk and Alex Rice to face Brennan.
"The only thing I was thinking when they walked our guys back-to-back was that something like that almost never works out for a team," said OPRF head coach Chris Ledbetter after the game. Ledbetter, who has coached four teams to the state finals, two to runner-up finishes, since taking the job in 2000, was drenched in Gatorade by his players after the win.
Lyons (27-13-1), who won the state title last season, was 2-1 against OPRF going into the game. The Lions tied the score at 1-1 in the fourth when Brad Taylor drove in a run by beating out an infield hit with two outs.
Lyons grabbed another run in the top of the fifth. Pitcher Steve Heilenbach doubled in Evan Booth, who had led off the inning with a ground-rule double that bounced over the left field fence.
But the Huskies (31-9-1) countered with two runs in the same frame, one coming on a wild pitch by Heilenbach and the other on an RBI single by Rice.
Lyons' Brad Taylor led off the sixth with a double. Stewart Nelson eventually drove in courtesy runner Kevin Pikul by beating out an infield hit. Nelson made his way to second on a popout. Booth then rocketed a shot to left field but Nelson tripped over the OPRF third basemen's feet and was held from scoring. Umpire Bob Jenkins ruled Booth would have to stay at third. Ushela wasn't pleased with the call.
"I don't know if I really want to talk about that play ever again," said Ushela after the game. "Bob is a great official. I think we should have been given the run."
In the top of the seventh, OPRF shortstop Dan Shinsako threw out LT's Matt Rebare at home and pitcher Zachary Weigel fanned Taylor to end the inning. Weigel, who is headed to Seton Hall in the fall, allowed three earned runs on seven hits in a complete game effort. The last time the lefty faced Lyons was May 11, when he gave up three earned runs on five hits in just two innings before being pulled with tightness in his elbow.
The two teams had very different post season runs, with the Lions belting their way back to the state title game and the Huskies making it there on grit and a little bit of luck. Lyons averaged eight runs per game heading into the championship, while OPRF advanced after a flourish of nail-biting victories, including a 1-0 win on just three hits against Highland Park in the supersectional and a wild come-from-behind victory over New Trier in the sectional semifinal after being down seven runs.
The tense moments eased a bit for OPRF in the state semifinal on Friday night as the Huskies cruised to an 8-2 win over Fox Lake's Grant. Joe McKune notched his seventh victory of the season by throwing in the mid 80-mph range throughout his seven innings on the mound. The senior allowed just five hits in the game and didn't yield a walk until the fourth inning.
Lyons Township pitcher Keith Lehmann, a junior who started on last season's state title team also allowed just five hits in the Lions' 6-2 win over Minooka in the other semifinal on Friday. The Lions scattered nine hits, including two by Lehmann. Nelson drove in two runs in that win.
What might be considered remarkable is the fact that neither team won the conference title this season. Lyons finished second and OPRF third, behind York, who was eliminated by Schaumburg in the first round of the playoffs.
"The carrot was there in front of us," said Ushela. "But this was a good game, and it's always fun playing Oak Park."
See more photos and coverage in the June 13 print edition of Wednesday Journal.