*Editor’s note: Effective March 22, Chris Ledbetter was let go of his duties as the OPRF head baseball coach. Joe Parenti will be the interim head coach this season. Through the school district’s hiring process, OPRF will hire a new head baseball coach during the offseason…More details to come.
Since Chris Ledbetter was named the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball head coach in 2001, he has maintained the standard of excellence set by his predecessor Jack Kaiser. From 2001 through 2016, the Huskies amassed five state final appearances, including runner-up finishes in 2001(AA) and 2008 (4A), a third-place showing in 2015 (4A), and a 4A championship in 2012.
Last year, however, was a deviation from the norm for OPRF. Ledbetter took a medical leave of absence and while the Huskies finished with a 24-11 record, they lost to Maine West in a regional semifinal.
“That was a bit of a surprise,” Ledbetter said. “I think it was a situation where a lot of things unexpectedly happened in that game. There were things that hadn’t happened to us during the season happen (against Maine West). But this is a new group of guys with a new focus.”
Not only has Ledbetter returned as head coach, there is plenty of good talent returning that could result in a deep postseason run. This spring represents a fresh start for the Huskies.
“I like to think that we are 0-34 every day at practice,” OPRF pitcher/first baseman Brendan Barrette said. “I want our guys to practice like we have everything to prove, like everyone doubts us. Then when game time comes we should play like we are 34-0 and craving to stay undefeated.”
Teammate Nathan Diamond added, “I am so pumped for the 2018 season to get rolling. We have such a great group of players and coaches. This is the year that so many of us have been waiting for having grown up in Oak Park and playing with these boys over the years.”
The Huskies have plenty of good pitchers. Barrette (Parkland recruit) and juniors Diamond (Pepperdine) and Griffin Holderfield (Creighton) are the headliners of a deep staff.
“Our main strength is our pitching because we will never run out of good arms,” Holderfield said. “On the field we need to back up the pitching, put the ball in play while hitting, and not make any base running mistakes.”
Other pitchers to keep an eye on are juniors Sam Guillot and Aaron Mishoulam.
“We also have two exceptional left-handers in Nathan Boyer and Henry Darrow,” Ledbetter said. “We feel we can put them in any conference game and not miss a beat,”
OPRF is also strong up the middle. Junior catcher Luke Fitzgerald (Creighton), senior shortstop Brian May (DePauw), sophomore second baseman Dylan Whitney and sophomore centerfielder Jai Mason Hsieh-Bailey solidify the team on offense and defense.
“Luke is a three-year starter at catcher,” Ledbetter said. “Brian is also a three-year varsity starter and one of our captains. Mason started in centerfield as a freshman last year. We’re pretty strong up the middle.”
May added, “Our pitcher/catcher chemistry will be great across the board. I mean Luke is a demon, he was a freshman while I was a sophomore on varsity so we have been in this together for a while. Guys like Barrette, Diamond, Holderfield, and Guillot can vibe with Fitz easy.”
Diamond will play first base when he isn’t pitching, as will Barrette and Darrow. Senior Andrew Neilson led OPRF with a .410 batting average last season and will play right field. Left field will be manned by junior Jake Greifelt, who missed 2017 due to a stress fracture. At third base, Jake Adams gets the call. He’s also the fourth outfielder. Holderfield will be the designated hitter and play some third base when not on the mound. Tommy Cronin, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound power hitter, and Adam Landsman provide quality infield depth for the Huskies.
“I think the type of baseball we play is very fast,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to make sure we play at our pace during every game, not the other teams. Our biggest strength this year will be our pitching staff. I am excited to catch the pitchers and work with them all year. To be successful, I think we need to make sure we consistently hit all year.
“I think we all have the same goal every year,” Fitzgerald added. “That goal is to make a legit run in the state playoffs.”
OPRF will battle defending champion Lyons Township, Hinsdale Central and perhaps York or Downers North for the West Suburban Silver title this spring.
“We’re starting with a clean slate,” Ledbetter said. “Last year’s over with, we want to create new memories with this group.”
Although the season can be a grind and progress will be measured by steps, a tradition-rich program like OPRF always has high expectations. The HUskies have three state championships and are always aspiring for more.
“A state championship is the goal,” May said. “It has been the goal long before I even picked up a baseball here at OPRF. That is a long term goal; we must focus on the present.”