Over the past three years, the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball team has been the gift that keeps on giving to local sports fans. The Huskies have won two straight Class 4A state championships (2016, 2017), featured All-American players in Chardonnay Harris, Maeve Nelson and Fiona Girardot, belted a school-record 62 home runs this past regular season, and established a reputation as dynamite dancers in the dugout.
Although they fell four wins shy of achieving a three-peat this spring, the Huskies provided quite a parting memory. Trailing Maine South 14-11 with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning, OPRF outfielder Mary Jones hit a game-winning grand slam in a riveting Niles West Sectional semifinal.
Hail Mary for making the “Miracle against Maine South” happen as the Huskies survived with a 15-14 victory.
That’s certainly more digestible than the “Travesty at Triton” in 2016 when the Fenwick football team was robbed of a postseason win against Plainfield North due to incorrect officiating.
Regardless, these are the kinds of epic games that fans always remember. They also serve partly as the impetus for the creation of the Night of Champions.
On Wednesday, June 20, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Dominican University (7900 Division St.) in River Forest, Wednesday Journal, in conjunction with sister publications Riverside-Brookfield Landmark and Forest Park Review, with sponsor state Senator Don Harmon, will host the Night of Champions. The fourth annual sports awards event honors elite high school teams, athletes and coaches from OPRF, Fenwick, Riverside-Brookfield, Lyons Township, Nazareth Academy, and Proviso East.
Between 6 and 7 p.m., a reception will be held in the foyer of the Lund Auditorium at Dominican with live music from the renowned OPRF Jazz Trio, plus networking opportunities, sponsor booths, and a raffle including several Chicago pro sports teams items, plus other surprises.
Two-time Olympic speedskater and OPRF alumnus Emery Lehman is the featured speaker for the evening.
Award categories include Male Athlete of the Year, Female Athlete of the Year, Male Team of the Year, Female Team of the Year, Coach of the Year, as well as Volunteer, Most Inspirational and Hall of Fame choices.
Wednesday Journal recipients this year include several state champions (Jake Rundell, Jacob Kaminski), nationally-ranked players (Maeve Nelson, Fiona Girardot), emerging programs (Fenwick girls hockey, Fenwick boys lacrosse), a dynasty (Fenwick water polo) and a burgeoning sportscaster from OPRF (Alec Cabacungan).
Rundell and Kaminski are co-winners of the 2017-2018 Male Athlete of the Year.
OPRF’s Rundell (42-2), who was the top-ranked wrestler at 106 pounds by IllinoisMatmen.com essentially all season, won his weight class in the Class 3A individual state tournament. Rundell defeated Marmion Academy’s Diego Sotelo 5-2 in the championship bout.
Fenwick’s Kaminski (31-2) won the Class 2A individual state championship in the 195-pound class. Kaminski, who advanced to the semifinals in 2017, finished the job this year with a 7-1 decision over Rochelle’s Alex Harvey in the state final match.
“It obviously feels great to be a state champion,” Kaminski said. “It’s really fulfilling for all your hard work to show and to know that you deserve the title.”
Kaminski also excelled as a pass-rushing defensive end on the Fenwick football team.
The Female Athlete of the Year award not only belongs to co-recipients but teammates as well.
Nelson and Girardot, who led OPRF softball to the aforementioned pair of state titles, had standout seasons this spring. During the regular season, Nelson hit .506 with 14 home runs, 46 RBIs and 45 runs scored. Nelson, who will play softball at Northwestern next season, also played basketball and volleyball at OPRF.
Girardot, a Wisconsin commit, hit .659 with 13 homers, 53 RBIs and 50 runs scored. The terrific tandem of middle infielders powered the Huskies to a 26-6 record under coach Mel Kolbusz.
As for the Team of the Year awards, OPRF wrestling takes one top honor, while Fenwick girls hockey is a worthy first-time selection.
The Huskies’ wrestling team, which has won four team state titles since 2009, lost to Montini 43-29 in the state championship dual this year. The Huskies finished 23-2 in dual matches and 6-0 as West Suburban Conference Silver Division champs.
“I think OPRF wrestled ‘Huskie Style’ at state,” said senior Jack Fisher, who will wrestle at the United States Military Academy next year. “That means everybody bought in to what the coaches preached. Everybody gave 100 percent effort to win their match.”
On the ice, the Fenwick girls hockey team went 15-2-5 during the regular season, finished second in the Metro North playoffs, and advanced to the semifinals of the Blackhawk Cup. A record seven players made the AHAI girls All-State team.
“We’re teaching hockey lessons but also life lessons,” Fenwick coach Mason Strom said. “It’s important to have team chemistry. I preach defense first, but now we have a handful of pretty talented players offensively as well. Our big goals are teaching defensive responsibility and playing both ends of the ice.”
Jerry Considine is the Coach of the Year, due to his exemplary work guiding the Fenwick boys lacrosse team to the best season in program history. The Friars finished 13-4 as one of the top teams in the Chicago Catholic League and a sectional champion. Take away state champion Loyola Academy, which beat the Friars three times, and the latter had success against virtually all other opponents.
While Fenwick had a historic season in boys lacrosse, the water polo program remains a powerhouse in the pool. In past years, the Friars have won various awards on both the boys and girls sides, including Coach of the Year and Team of the Year at the Night of Champions. Based on the program’s incomparable record of success with both the boys and girls teams (30 state titles, collectively), Fenwick water polo has earned the Night of Champions highest distinction as a Hall of Fame honoree.
In other categories, Melvin Tate is the Volunteer of the Year and Alec Cabacungan is the Most Inspirational award winner.
Tate, an Oak Park resident, has been an invaluable asset for the Wednesday Journal sports department. Whether it’s been covering games, writing stories or appearing on The Doris Davenport Show, Tate has shown an unparalled passion for the local high school sports scene.
Cabacungan was born with a rare genetic condition called osteogenesis imperfecta. The recently turned 16-year-old has broken more than 60 bones in his body. The affable Cabacungan serves as a spokesman for Shriners Hospital and dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster. He’s well on the way to achieving the latter with trips around the country interviewing pro sports legends like Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Brett Favre.
In addition to the Wednesday Journal All-Stars shown on page 61, here are this year’s Honorable Mention athletes: Zora Barnett, OPRF volleyball; Hailey Bergen, OPRF badminton; Billy Bruce, Fenwick golf/basketball; Anika Carlson, OPRF golf; Vanessa Celio, Fenwick volleyball; Natalie Chizzo, OPRF volleyball; Thomas Cozzi, OPRF water polo; Danny Cronin, Fenwick football; Dan Franklin, OPRF water polo; Haley Gladden, OPRF golf; Max Goldstein, OPRF hockey; Josh Harris, Fenwick track & field; Maeve Heflin, OPRF badminton; Bobby Iwashima, OPRF soccer; Cal Jaques, OPRF water polo; Ricky Jones, OPRF hockey; George Lagios, Fenwick lacrosse; Liam Mahon, Fenwick wrestling; James Maguire, OPRF soccer; Ben Manola, OPRF tennis; Rachel Martinez, Fenwick softball; Marie Miller, Fenwick equestrian; Damari Nixon, Fenwick basketball; Hope Nowak, OPRF lacrosse; Anthony Roberts, OPRF basketball; Chase Robinson, OPRF basketball; Grace Rogowski, Fenwick swimming; Malachi Ross, OPRF basketball; Rachel Rowe, OPRF track & field; Joe Runnells, Fenwick baseball; Darse Sanchez, OPRF basketball; Ale Sleuwen, OPRF volleyball; Ivan Soto, Fenwick water polo; Sean Wangelin, OPRF tennis; Destiny White, OPRF track & field; Dylan Whitney, OPRF baseball; Matt Zuber, Fenwick wrestling.
To register for tickets for Night of Champions, visit this linkhttps://www.facebook.com/events/954308244740163/. While the event is free, registration is encouraged.