Entering his 26th season coaching the Oak Park and River Forest softball team, coach Mel Kolbusz has a glittering resume with 714 wins, 17 conference titles and 6 top-three finishes in the state playoffs.
Two of the three state championships were won the past two years. The goal is obvious if not simple this spring: earn a three-peat.
Last season may have been Kolbusz’s finest yet. Led by ace Chardonnay Harris (now pitching at Auburn) and star infielders Maeve Nelson and Fiona Girardot, the Huskies finished 37-1 with a Class 4A state title in 2017. The season culminated in thrilling fashion with a 1-0 victory over Lincoln-Way East in the 4A title game. Catcher Mariah Scott hit the game-winning homer in the ninth inning. 2017 graduates Harris, Scott and Sydney Babbington will be missed.
“Winning back-to-back state titles is a tremendous accomplishment,” Girardot said. “It’s rare to be able to win consecutive championships. We’ll have that accomplishment with us for the rest of our lives.”
Girardot, who plays second base, and Nelson, a senior shortstop are both All-State and All-American players. Both produced phenomenal offensive stats. Nelson hit .514 with 12 home runs, 61 RBIs and 60 runs scored. Girardot batted .603 with six homers, 59 RBIs, 22 doubles and 59 runs scored.
The Huskies will need their leadership as much as their talent this season.
“Fiona and Maeve are our leaders,” Kolbusz said. “Whether it’s on or off the field or in the classroom, they’re terrific student-athletes. They are great hitters and defenders. I can’t say enough about them.”
Junior Taylor Divello is OPRF’s top returning pitcher. She was 5-0 with a 1.99 earned run average in 2017. Freshman Cassie Metzger and junior Zoe Prouty will also contribute from the pitching circle.
“We’ve had several All-State pitchers, and I usually don’t say things like this, but I can honestly say that Chardonnay is the best we’ve ever had,” Kolbusz said. “She was the Gatorade Player of the Year and is now pitching in a top 20 college program. She’s irreplaceable, but Cassie, Taylor and Zoe will certainly do their best.”
Besides Girardot and Nelson, who have committed to Wisconsin and Northwestern, respectively, the Huskies return other quality hitters in the lineup. Junior center fielder Nellie Kamenitsa-Hale made the all-West Suburban Conference Silver Division team last year, batting .464 and scoring 48 runs. Senior catcher Olivia Glass batted .356 with 4 homers and 36 RBIs. Senior right fielder Annie Deamer-Nagle hit .311 and scored 33 runs.
“Pitching and defense win softball games,” Girardot said. “We will have to focus on these two parts of the game to be successful. During the season we have to focus on each game and not think ahead. We need to try to get better each game individually and as a team.”
Freshman Maddie Grant will start at first base, with junior Mary Jones also seeing time there. Jones, who has orally committed to the University of Illinois-Chicago, can also play in the outfield and often will occupy the designated player spot in the lineup. Junior Carli Tucci takes over left field and will bat leadoff. Junior Maeve Ryan will be the starting third baseman, with Jaelyn Brown, Karly Cantrell, Megan Krikau, and Emily Soto providing valuable depth for OPRF.
While OPRF is favored to defend its conference championship, Lyons Township, Downers Grove North and York should field competitive teams. Tough non-conference games include Marist, Mother McAuley, Nazareth, Providence, Warren and Penn (one of Indiana’s top teams).
Kolbusz is well aware it’s a long season. Winning conference, regional, sectional and supersectional titles are all on the agenda. Ultimately though, OPRF doesn’t want to let that feeling go of being the best in the state.
“In our first team meeting of the year, I put a big “3” on the chalkboard. That’s our goal this year,” he said about winning three straight state championships. “We’re capable of it but the key will be developing and getting better as the season progresses. We’re going to accept the challenge.”
Off to a 2-1 start this spring, OPRF hosts Waubonsie Valley for a doubleheader on Saturday, March 24. The first game starts at 11 a.m.
“We’re going to get everyone’s best shot because we’re the two-time defending state champions,” Kolbusz said. “The kids were disappointed after losing to Fremd, but I told them that we’re probably going to lose a few more games this year. The last seven games (the state tournament) are the ones we need to win.”