Fab four: The quartet of (left to right) Samantha Neilson, Natalie Ungaretti, Hanna Blankemeier and Alexandra Gill celebrate winning the 200-yard medley relay state title on Nov. 21, 2016. | File photo

I’d like to begin this latest edition of “Tate’s Take” by congratulating the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball team on winning back-to-back Class 4A state championships. 

The Huskies boasted a 74-3 record the last two seasons, were ranked third in the USA Today national poll, featured the Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year in ace in Chardonnay Harris and a powerful lineup including Harris, Maeve Nelson, Mariah Scott, Sydney Babbington, and Fiona Girardot that outscored playoff opponents 61-5.

Other than I guess wanting a piece of the Golden State Warriors, what’s left to accomplish for the incomparable Huskies?

Though Harris will take her talents to Auburn in the fall, All-State players Nelson and Girardot headline a good list of returning players focused on chasing down a three-peat.

This past sports year was one of the more remarkable ones in recent memory. Here’s a look ahead to some of the most intriguing 2017-2018 storylines.

Although we’re all going to enjoy the summer, it’s never too early to look ahead at what’s to come starting August. This coming year will have some ways to go in terms of matching the excitement of this past year, but there’s still some questions to ponder. 

What’s ahead in sports

– Can Fenwick football bounce back from the Travesty at Triton? Obviously Gene Nudo’s team had a highly successful year going 12-1 (yes, I don’t care that the IHSA has the record at 11-2, we all know that isn’t true), and there are plenty of returnees for 2017, including Austin Glazier and Mike O’Laughlin. But, there are two giant voids at quarterback and running back. Jacob Keller and Conner Lillig were very good at those spots, but they’re off to Northern Iowa and Illinois respectively. Nudo needs to find replacements for them; if he can, the Friars will be just fine.

– Can OPRF football extend its playoff appearance streak to six seasons (extending the school record)? John Hoerster has done a wonderful job reviving a once-dormant program, but it’s time to go to the next level, and that means avoiding losses in the first or second round like the last five years. However, just getting to the playoffs may be a challenge. The Huskies lost a lot of talent from 2016, including stalwarts Jeremy Hunt, Jared Scott, and Keyon Blankenbaker. The Huskies have a lot of work to do.

– Can Fenwick and OPRF boys basketball repeat their conference championships? Plenty of starters return for both teams. The Huskies will miss Scott and Cam Gross, and the Friars Keller and Jamal Nixon (Fenwick’s winningest player), but some special talent remains with the likes of DJ Steward, A.J. Nixon, Isaiah Fuller, and Charlie Hoehne. Add good coaches in Rick Malnati and Matt Maloney, and it’s reasonable to see both teams in the preseason Top 10.

– Other storylines: Can OPRF wrestling reclaim the state team title after seeing its 3-year reign end? Can Fenwick phenom Jacob Kaminski repeat his dominant freshman season? Can the Fenwick and OPRF girls basketball teams bounce back from tough seasons? Can Fenwick water polo reclaim state titles? How many state titles will OPRF swimmer Natalie Ungaretti ultimately win, and can the Huskies build off their fourth-place finish at state? Will OPRF baseball return to form after an unusually down season? And can OPRF softball get the three-peat?

Whatever happens on the scoreboard, this much is guaranteed. It will be fun to watch out local teams.

Marvelous Marie

Finally, I’d like to offer my congratulations to all the winners at the Night of Champions event, which took place on June 20 at Dominican University. Whether you’re a Huskie or Friar, thanks for providing plenty of great memories this season. I’d like to take a moment to talk about one particular winner and what she and her family have meant to me.

Marie Lillig, mother of aforementioned Fenwick three-sport athlete Conner Lillig, is this year’s Wednesday Journal “Volunteer of the Year.” She did yeoman’s work as one of the Fenwick football team moms. Whether it was taking photos, organizing events for Friar fans, or even providing soup and gloves during the November playoff run, she did it all. She truly symbolizes what Fenwick and OPRF are all about – going above and beyond to get the job done. I can’t think of a more deserving winner.

I first met Marie, her husband Nick (Fenwick alum that was on the 1981 football state semifinalist), and Conner during the playoffs. I could tell the passion and dedication they had for Fenwick football. 

The more we got to know each other, the stronger our bond became. Marie and the Lilligs have become not only good friends, but it feels like we’re family. Marie will be there for me if I ever got into trouble. And I will be there for her, Nick, Conner and Nicky if any of them needed help and support. 

They have improved my life immeasurably. I am a more confident man and a better person today because of our friendship. I am looking forward to hanging out with the Lilligs this fall at a few Illinois tailgates as Conner starts his career. Marie, it is a true blessing that you came into my life – you’ll always be a dear friend!

Enjoy the summer folks. See you in August when football season starts! #FRIARUP #ITSAGREATDAY.

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