By Marty Farmer
It's perhaps a bit ironic but also completely fitting that Max Sakellaris excels at 16-inch no glove softball. After all, the Oak Park native has his hands full the rest of the time managing his roles as a husband and new father along with serving as a football/basketball coach and physical education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
For the past five summers, Sakellaris and his Flashback teammates have competed in Forest Park's annual No Glove Nationals 16-inch softball tournament. The prestigious tournament annually affords Sakellaris a fleeting dose of summer fun with his softball buddies before the unrelenting demands of the OPRF school year kick in August.
"The [No Glove Nationals] tournament is definitely a last hurrah for me in terms of the summer," Sakellaris said. "A lot of guys on [Flashback] played sports growing up so playing summer softball together is way for all of us to stay around the game. We play almost 80-90 games each summer.
"Luckily, I have a wife that's beyond understanding," added Sakellaris with a laugh. "We start doubles [OPRF football practices] on August 10 and then my life is over."
Prior to hitting the gridiron as one of OPRF's assistants under head coach John Hoerster though, Sakellaris participated in the No Glove Nationals over the weekend. Flashback, the three-time defending champion, won three of five games en route to a sixth place finish at the 45th edition of no glove softball's crowned jewel of tourneys. For his part, Sakellaris played well defensively and also hit a key RBI double in Flashback's 6-4 win against Sage.
Windy City edged OBI 8-6 to win this year's title.
In 2012, Sakellaris won the Most Valuable Player award at No Glove Nationals, leading Flashback to its third straight championship via a 13-12 win over Windy City in a riveting final. Sakellaris earned his MVP putting up the following scintillating stats: .533 batting average, two home runs, eight RBIs, and a 1.133 slugging percentage coupled with air-tight, "non-glove" defensive work at first base.
"I probably shouldn't have won the MVP," Sakellaris said, "but I did a couple of good things in the later games. It's pretty easy to play first base on our team considering I'm playing with six Hall of Famers around our infield."
While Sakellaris, 29, deflected praise regarding his honor in favor of complimenting Flashback's array of stars, teammate Ralph Lawrence appreciates his friend's value on and off the softball field. Lawrence is the equipment manager at OPRF.
"Max was playing with some Oak Park guys in the Westchester softball league," Lawrence said. "He was hitting big balls and we were looking to pick up a player for No Gloves so we grabbed him. He fit in perfectly with Flashback.
"Max is one of my closest friends and a great guy. He was a hard worker as a player on the football field and [now] he's applying that work ethic into coaching and teaching."
Anthony Tyler, another Flashback teammate who won the No Gloves MVP in 2010, marvels at Sakellaris' ability to pick up the nuances of 16-inch softball sans gloves in relatively short order.
"For a guy who hadn't played too much 16-inch softball previously, Max is one of the best defensive first baseman I've seen," Tyler said. "He's one of our power hitters and hits the ball as far as anybody I've seen. Max is just a tremendous player, super guy and great family man."
Family and OPRF are virtually synonymous in Sakellaris' tight-knit world. His parents, Sam and Barb, have been part of the OPRF Booster Club, while his sister-in-law Courtney is an assistant athletic director at the school. Nick, one of his two brothers, has coached basketball with the Huskies for over 20 years.
Born and raised in Oak Park, Sakellaris attended OPRF where he earned all-conference recognition in football, baseball and basketball. He played first base on the Huskies' state runner-up squad in 2001 coached by Chris Ledbetter. In an interesting case of a former player and coach reuniting via competition, Sakellaris and Ledbetter played softball briefly together on Flashback.
"My first year with Flashback, Chris was on the team and he also played on Hype," Sakellaris said. "I learned so much from coaches like him and [basketball coach] Al Allen at OPRF. It's funny because after I left high school, I realized what they said was 100 percent right."
While Sakellaris flourished in three sports at OPRF, he decided to pursue football at the next level. Between 2003-2006, Sakellaris anchored the offensive line at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater as a two-time All-American selection.
After a pair of solid 7-3 campaigns during his first two seasons, Sakellaris enjoyed consecutive trips with the Warhawks to the NCAA Division III championship game against Mount Union College. Unfortunately, the Warhawks lost both championship tilts.
"We lost twice so I guess we were kind of like the Buffalo Bills," Sakellaris said. "When I first got [at UW-W] we took some lumps but we went 42-6 overall when I played there. In Wisconsin, there are not Division II schools, so it was basically the University of Wisconsin and us which was kind of cool. We got a lot of publicity and the attention around our football program wasn't a normal Division III atmosphere."
UW-Whitewater and MUC would square off five straight years in the Stagg Bowl national title game. Sakellaris' stellar play at offensive tackle with the Warhawks helped open a recruiting pipeline of sorts between OPRF and UW-Whitewater. Six other OPRF players Levell Coppage, Max Ford, Zach Howard, Ronnie Blaszkowski, Hans Goldenberg and Gabe Woullard have played for the Warhawks.
A similar football "buzz" surrounds the current state of the OPRF football program. Hoerster, with the aid of an excellent coaching staff including Sakellaris, has the Huskies' football program headed in a positive direction. From Sakellaris' perspective, the Huskies' bandwagon is just starting to get on a roll even if momentum is a bit overdue.
"John has created a different atmosphere that had been lacking at OPRF for a long time," he said. "Football is very important [now] and we're getting a high number of players which we didn't get in the past. We actually don't have enough uniforms and jerseys [now] for all the kids which is great. It shows how many kids are coming out for football, and that's half the battle."
In addition to working as an assistant coach on the football team, Sakellaris will coach basketball and teach physical education at OPRF.
Of course, Sakellaris' primary responsibilities revolve around taking care of his wife Kara and their 11-month-old son, Tyler.
"Sometimes it's hard to balance everything but its great being a dad," he said. "My wife is very loving and understanding. I couldn't do any of this without her support.
"My entire family has always been involved with OPRF. We just kind of bleed orange and blue. My son and [future] kids will go there because there's no place we would rather be than OPRF."