It will be difficult for the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball team to equal, much less top, the dramatic and exciting ending to the 2016 season.
The Huskies won their last 27 games, including a 4-2 victory over Normal West in 10 innings in the Class 4A state championship game, to capture their second state title.
Six of the players who started the championship game have graduated, but that doesn’t mean veteran coach Mel Kolbusz is any less confident when asked if the Huskies can repeat.
“Of course we can,” Kolbusz said. “We’re going to step up and try to accept the challenge and win as many games as we can.
“I don’t think we’re going to win 37 games again, but as I told the girls, the last seven (playoff) games are all that matters. It will be a challenge, but we can only play them one at a time.”
A lot of things have to go right to win a state title and they did last year, particularly in the championship game against Normal West, which was one strike away from winning its first state title in any sport.
Three of the players who had leading roles in denying Normal West that glory are back.
The most prominent name is junior shortstop Maeve Nelson, whose two-out, two-strike triple in the top of the seventh tied the game.
Nelson, a Northwestern commit, is one of the best players in the state. She batted .492 with 10 home runs, 53 RBI and 49 runs scored last season.
Nelson suffered a torn labrum in her left (non-throwing) shoulder during the summer and underwent surgery in September. She wanted to play basketball this winter but OPRF basketball coach J.P. Coughlin, who also is Kolbusz’ assistant coach, had her sit out the season to heal.
“She wasn’t too happy about that,” Kolbusz said. “She’s very intense. She wants to do everything.”
There is no reason to think Nelson won’t be able to do everything at full tilt this spring. Kolbusz said the shoulder is probably 90 to 95 percent healed.
The Huskies have two other Division I recruits in senior pitcher Chardonnay Harris and sophomore second baseman Fiona Girardot.
Harris, who was 15-2 with a 0.83 earned-run average, 11 walks and 183 strikeouts in 109 2/3 innings, won both games at the state finals. The Auburn recruit hurled a one-hit shutout in the 5-0 semifinal win over DeKalb and then fired eight shutout innings in relief in the championship game.
Harris, who has battled injuries in the past, becomes the ace of the staff after Emily Richardson, who was 20-0 last season, graduated.
Girardot was a revelation as a freshman, batting .407 with 24 RBI and 30 runs scored. Her two-run double in the top of the 10th against Normal West proved to be the game-winning hit and she has since verbally committed to Wisconsin.
Also back are senior catcher Mariah Scott and senior outfielder Sydney Babbington. Scott batted .347 with three homers and 19 RBI, while Babbington. Both can play several positions, including catcher.
“They’re both very versatile,” Kolbusz said. “Sydney was a catcher and shortstop as a sophomore and was in the outfield last year. Mariah is a good infielder, so we’ll see how it plays out.
“The first 10 games are going to be experimenting. Last year I knew what I had at the beginning of the season, but this year is more of a feeling-out process.”
That’s especially true with the pitching staff, where senior Emily Cekander and sophomore Taylor Divello are battling for the No. 2 spot behind Harris.
Cekander was 2-0 with a 0.41 ERA in six games for the varsity last season, while Divello was outstanding for the freshman team.
The Huskies have two other position players with varsity experience. Senior Katie O’Shea will play third base and senior Allison Smart takes over at first base.
Junior Olivia Glass and sophomore Nellie Kamenitsa-Hale are the top newcomers. Glass was the JV catcher last year and Kamenitsa-Hale is a left-handed hitting outfielder.
“The varsity baseball coaches were joking that they wanted (Glass) to be their pinch-runner,” Kolbusz said. “She’s an outstanding athlete. She has the second-fastest 40-yard dash time on the team and has good hands and a really nice release.”
Kolbusz is pleased that all of his players have embraced the challenge of defending the state title.
“Everyone is happy with the success we had last year,” Kolbusz said. “Before this season I asked the girls, ‘What does this season mean for you?’ Most of them said they wanted to prove themselves and make an impact.”