For a team playing with one hand tied behind its back, Oak Park and River Forest put up a good fight Thursday in the Fenwick Regional championship game of the summer baseball state playoffs.
Despite playing without six starters, the Huskies were tied with host Lyons Township in the fourth inning before the Lions pulled away late for a 5-3 victory.
“I’m very disappointed that we had six starters not play,” OPRF coach Chris Ledbetter said. “They were here all week, then they decided today to play travel ball.
“That’s really frustrating. I’ve never had to deal with that before so it’s an adjustment.”
The adjustment fell squarely on the shoulders of younger players, who took the field without the veterans that had helped the Huskies (16-5) win three tight games to reach the title game.
OPRF defeated St. Ignatius 7-6 in the first round on July 11, then squeezed past Leyden 11-10 in the quarterfinals before edging top-seeded Willowbrook 6-4 in nine innings.
But second-seeded LTHS (17-6-2) grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning and never trailed.
OPRF starter Evan Neslawski, who normally plays center field, walked leadoff hitter Wyatt Tawse and gave up a single to Connor Pasko. Both later scored.
“It was tough because a few of our starters weren’t here, so a few kids had to step up playing some positions they normally wouldn’t,” OPRF senior Roy Iverson said. “I think altogether we tried our hardest. It was a tough game against a good team.”
One the Huskies were in throughout. Iverson, who usually plays third base, had to fill in at first base and played error-free.
Iverson also went 2-for-3 with a stolen base and drove in two runs. His RBI single in the top of the fourth cut the gap to 2-1 and his heads-up base-running moments later led to the Huskies scoring the tying run.
With two outs and runners at first and third, Iverson tried to steal second. Neslawski waited for the catcher to throw to second and then broke for home and scored as Iverson retreated safely to first base.
But the Lions retook the lead in the bottom of the inning when Justin Williams was hit by a pitch, went to third on Neslawski’s errant pick-off attempt and scored on a wild pitch.
Just as they did in the first, Tawse and Pasko set the table again in the fifth with a lead-off walk followed by a single. Both scored one out later on a single by Nick Hughes.
The Huskies answered with a run in the sixth as Ryan Molina reached on an error and scored on a two-out single by Iverson. But LTHS sophomore Grant Leader retired the final four batters he faced to put the finishing touches on a complete-game five-hitter.
“This is a younger ballclub and the guys came out and competed today,” Ledbetter said. “The nice thing today is we got to see six or seven juniors play and they did a nice job. There’s a lot to work with there.”
Ledbetter also praised the effort of Iverson, Molina and Brian May, saying they had “played lights-out all summer.” Newcomer Luke Landis pitched three times in relief during the tournament and performed well.
But Ledbetter was unhappy with the absence of his star players for a state playoff game.
“That’s something that is going to be addressed,” Ledbetter said. “Pure commitment means commitment on both ends.
“They were never in a situation where they were telling their travel coach, ‘I’m not going to be there because of my commitment to my high school team,’ and that’s going to be addressed.
“Guys are running off to play travel ball because, ‘Oh, I need to be showcased.’ They’re not taking the time to fix the things that they need to fix to play at the next level.”
Iverson, who is hoping to win the starting job at third base next spring, said the remaining players took the issue in stride.
“I think as a team we handled it pretty well,” Iverson said. “We could have changed a few things and had a different outcome, but overall we did what we could.”
Fenwick falls to Lions as well
LTHS blanked host Fenwick 10-0 in opening-round action of the state playoffs.
Justin Sosa took the loss for the Friars (1-9-1), who committed five errors. Sosa gave up three runs, only one earned, and four hits over four innings before LTHS took advantage of four errors to score seven runs in the fifth.
“We’re really not that bad,” said Fenwick coach Dave Hogan, who noted Sosa and junior catcher Mike Cerceo were the only regulars from last spring’s sectional championship team on hand. “Sosa failed to tell me he pitched four innings Saturday for his travel (team). He felt bad that he couldn’t have done better.”
Hogan said he expects the Friars to be solid next spring.
“We’re going to be awfully good,” Hogan said. “(The summer) is just a learning experience.
“We knew there were going to be a lot of mistakes, which I will meet with them individually (about) first week of school and (tell them) here’s what we’ve got to work on.”