The last 12 months made for a wild year when it came to local high school sports, and I’m being kind when I say that.

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked so much havoc and resulted in upheaval for the athletic programs of Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick, and Trinity high schools. We went from not having spectators at events for the winter and spring sports seasons to having large turnouts at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for Fenwick’s IHSA Class 5A football title game Nov. 27 and at Credit Union One Arena on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus for the annual Crosstown Showdown between Fenwick and OPRF in boys basketball Dec. 3.

Moreover, the 2020 football, boys soccer, and girls volleyball seasons — traditionally fall sports — were moved to spring 2021, while wrestling, a winter sport, was conducted in May and June, sometimes outside on football fields.

A sense of normalcy returned this fall as all sports were placed back into their normal seasons. And there’s no doubt that Fenwick’s 34-15 win over Kankakee in the aforementioned Class 5A title game — marking the Friars’ first state football championship — was the game of the year.

That wouldn’t likely had been possible if the play of the year hadn’t occurred a couple of weeks earlier. On the first play of the fourth quarter of Fenwick’s 5A quarterfinal at Nazareth Academy on Nov. 13, defensive end Suleiman Abuaqel intercepted a screen pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown that effectively sealed the Friars’ 28-17 win.

Here are a few other notable highlights from the 2021 athletic year:

  • OPRF baseball made a strong postseason run, falling to New Trier 9-8 in a thrilling sectional final at the school. This game, along with the Huskies’ regional title win over Von Steuben the previous week, marked the return of the general public to athletic events, creating an exciting atmosphere.
  • Bob Osborne’s return as Trinity’s softball coach was a success as the Blazers won a Class 3A regional title. Among Trinity’s wins was a dramatic 14-12 walk-off over OPRF at Triton College on May 31 as Jessica Hoffman belted a game-winning three-run homer.
  • Fenwick boys basketball saw a change in leadership as Tony Young came from Marmion Academy to replace Staunton Peck, who stepped down after spending eight seasons with the Friars, including the previous three as head coach.
  • OPRF experienced numerous changes with its athletic department. Longtime Athletic Director John Stelzer retired July 1 and was replaced by Morton’s Nicole Ebsen.

There were also a few Huskies’ coaches who either retired or stepped down. In girls basketball, Carlton Rosemond replaced J.P. Coughlin, and baseball coach Joe Parenti stepped down.

Most notable was the retirement of softball coach Mel Kolbusz after a 35-year career at OPRF, including the last 29 seasons as the program’s leader. Under his guidance, the Huskies won three state championships.

Replacements for Kolbusz and Parenti have yet to be announced.

  • Fenwick girls basketball coach Dave Power, who announced this season would be the final of his 45-year career, recorded his 1000th career victory Nov. 19 as the Friars defeated Taft 50-19. He’s one of only three coaches in Illinois history (Dorothy Gaters and the late Gene Pingatore are the others) to reach this illustrious mark.
  • The Fenwick boys cross country team won the IHSA Class 2A state championship, the first Chicago Catholic League team to achieve this feat. Also, OPRF senior Josephine Welin won the IHSA Class 3A girls cross country individual title.
  • The OPRF field hockey team returned to prominence as the Huskies reached the state final for the first time since 2008. OPRF lost the title game to New Trier 4-0, but it didn’t diminish what coach Kristin Wirtz described as a “great season.”
  • Fenwick’s girls tennis won its first state trophy in program history as the Friars finished third in IHSA Class 1A. The OPRF boys soccer team won its first sectional title since 1996 and advanced to the Class 3A Barrington Supersectional, where the Huskies fell to Fremd 1-0 on a late goal. And OPRF boys golfer Nate Bibbey shot a career-low 69 to place seventh at the IHSA state meet Oct. 8-9.

All this happened during a pandemic, which continues to disrupt high school athletics. Earlier this month, OPRF announced that athletics and other extracurricular activities would be temporarily suspended due to a rise in cases at the school. After a vocal student-led protest Dec. 4, the school resumed extracurricular activities three days later once protocols were modified.

With a new COVID variant resulting in a dramatic rise in cases nationwide, it’s inevitable there will be more postponements coming. But for the sake of the students’ mental health, I hope the postponements are just that, and won’t lead to something more dramatic, like season cancellations similar to the spring of 2020.

My hope is that these young men and women can have as close to a normal high school experience as possible. Will it happen? Only time will tell.

Join the discussion on social media!