New Oak Park and River Forest High School Athletic Director Nicole Ebsen comes from Morton High School District 201, where she served in that role for nine years. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

When John Stelzer announced his retirement as athletic director at Oak Park and River Forest High School earlier this year, Nicole Ebsen — then-athletic director for nearby Morton High School District 201 — paid close attention.

“I’ve always been attracted to this particular school because of the resources they’ve dedicated to their extracurricular activities,” said Ebsen, who officially took over from Stelzer July 1. “I’ve always had my eye on [the AD job], and when it became available, I started looking at it a little bit more.”

Ebsen, who was Morton’s athletic director for nine years, has already made an impact on OPRF athletics. Her first coaching hire was new Huskies’ girls basketball coach Carlton Rosemond, who came over from Evanston Township High School.

“Carlton came in with a very good background and knowledge of the sport,” she said. “He also had experience with changing a culture at Evanston, and I thought it would be a very good fit for him to come here and rebuild and rebrand the program. His energy is contagious.”

In Ebsen’s tenure at Morton, which serves 8,000 students from Berwyn, Cicero, Lyons, Stickney and Forest View, the boys’ soccer team enjoyed sustained success. In 2019, the school sent over 60 fan buses to North Central College in Naperville as the Mustangs competed in the IHSA Class 3A title game, setting an Illinois High School Association record.

Ebsen, who is the second woman to lead OPRF athletics — longtime Athletic Director Sandy Abbinanti retired in 2004 — wants bring a similar experience to OPRF, and that could generate plenty of excitement in the Dog Pound, OPRF’s student fan section.

“When I was at Morton, we did several things like state sendoffs and fan buses,” she said. “We had extravagant events with our athletic program that brought in the entire community. That was fun and, hopefully, we’ll get to do some of those things here.”

As for how Ebsen sees the Huskies’ program evolving, she wants it to be a memorable experience for all students, one that’s welcoming with a lot of spirit and which ties into a quality high school environment. She also wants the community to come out to events and be active and passionate.

“It’s a powerful thing to be involved with high school athletics,” said Ebsen. “It’s a staple of what a Friday night should be in the community. We hope to harness the energy of this new normal and carry it forward throughout our seasons next year.”

Last season was challenging for high school athletic programs across Illinois as schools struggled to conduct competitions during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus is still present, things have improved to where there are no more capacity restrictions, and Ebsen is optimistic Oak Park Stadium will be filled when OPRF football opens the season Aug. 27.

“That’s the hope, to get things back to as normal as we can possibly get so that our kids and community can have the overall experience back,” she said. “Everyone is craving whatever the new normal is going to look like, as long as they’re all doing it together. Friday night football is something special, and we hope to matriculate the energy from it into our other sports.”

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