So now that Oak Park and River Forest has won the Class AA State Softball championship, the big question on everyone’s minds is when will we see head coach Mel Kolbusz with cornrows?
Most of the team adopted the do during the season and it led to the school’s first State title ever when the Huskies edged Moline 4-1 in 11 innings on Saturday night at EastSide Centre in East Peoria. It was more than just a victory for the Huskies. It was blessed redemption. And today’s Huskies, as well as the Huskies of yesteryear, deserve all the elation.
Before 2003, the program itself had been knocked out in the first round of the State tournament five times dating back to ’91. For awhile there it was like the program made it the final round of American Idol only to lose to the Chipmunks. A third place finish two years ago meant something. It would only be a matter of time before OPRF was hoisting State title hardware after a softball game. Or would it?
And then last year happened. It was a stellar season, the team went 35-7 and made it to the State championship game, but it ended in tears and heartache?#34;not so much with a loss, but a devastating one at that. Players like Caitlin Morocco, Jessica Rigas, Jane Nightengale, Erika Rosenwinkel, Holly Roadruck, Kate Ziegler, Mia Zinni, Kealon Waldron, Samantha Pehlke, Megan Kiefer, Stephanie Bernthal and Ann Schraufnagel were stunned after seeing Lockport quash their team’s 6-0 lead and swipe the trophy from under their feet. It wasn’t pretty. Hearts ached. I got a few irate e-mails when I stated in a story during that time that the team blew a six-run lead to lose the game. It was a bit harsh, but it was the truth. No other softball team in IHSA history had held such a lofty lead only to lose.
The whole program could have gone to the pits after last season’s disappointing loss. But Seana Stillson arrived, hearts mended and the returning players took on a new mission. They returned to the scene of the crime on Saturday night, not after crushing every opponent along the way, but holding on long enough to conquer while conserving. These experienced players knew they’d need every ounce of energy for the title game. While Stillson (12-1, 0.64 ERA) rocked and fired, the players that were stung last year dug in. Rigas went 2-for-5 with an RBI, while Waldron belted out an RBI double and Schraufnagel singled her in.
It was Roadruck (12-3) who led the team to its most important victory, a 4-1 win over Lake Park in the semifinal, a game that usually drifts into the ether win a team wins the championship. The junior hurler tossed a three-hitter, while Waldron drove in two runs.
This was a team determined.
Oh sure some could say Moline had just over an hour to rest in-between the semifinal game and the title game due to a lengthy rain delay, but that doesn’t stick. The game went 11 innings, both teams were depleted near the end. But the Huskies had more drive to win. They had every reason not to give in.
Kolbusz’ saying over these remarkable years has been, “You have to win your last game of the season. Win your last game of the season and then you’ll win the State title.”
It’s not Vince Lombardi-like in its motivation but it makes sense. OPRF had never won its last game of a season, until Saturday. And what a sweet and endearing win it was.
The players have the cornrows to prove it.