Senior Bella Morales spent last season honing her craft as a pitcher for the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball program.
She played on the junior varsity.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Morales said. “I love the coach there. It also gave me the chance to focus on what I wanted to work on and not really focus on.”
Morales and the Huskies have come a long way.
Actually, all the way to the IHSA Class 4A state semifinals for the first time since 2017.
The state’s greatest turnaround continued impressively June 5 as the Huskies defeated Lake Park 7-1 to win the St. Charles North Supersectional. OPRF (30-7) will play in the state semifinals June 9 against Yorkville at 3 p.m. in East Peoria.
The Huskies, who finished 11-16 in 2022, are riding a 13-game winning streak. They return eight varsity players but still played only two seniors against Lake Park – Morales and left fielder Kelly Cortez.
“I can’t really put it into words. I knew we were totally capable of it,” said Morales, who threw a two-hitter with two strikeouts and no walks. “I thought we could make it pretty far but now this far. It’s just amazing.”
“It’s team bonding that helped us improve,” Cortez said. “The connections we made are so different from last year. We’re a family and I think that’s got us far.”
As the No. 7 and 8 hitters, sophomore Gloria Hornek had three of the Huskies’ eight hits and junior Macy Callahan had two run-scoring singles. Sophomore Anna Topol scored twice.
The Huskies also took advantage of five errors by the Lancers (26-12-1), including the game’s first run in the top of the third inning without a hit.
“I didn’t think we were going to triple our wins and go downstate [entering this season], but I was hoping we could be competitive in conference and in the sectional,” second-year OPRF coach J.P. Coughlin said. “This group just gets better and better every single day. They’re young and they’re hungry. It’s all them. They’re such a great team with each other.”
Morales (12-4), who will pitch at Salem College, retired the first 12 hitters she faced before allowing both hits and a run in the fourth. The Lancers’ only other baserunner reached on an infield error in the seventh.
“In my opinion, she’s an all-state pitcher. She’s beaten four [NCAA Division I] pitchers so far this year,” Coughlin said. “She’s just a bulldog out there. She’s not overpowering, but she spins the ball constantly and puts it where we want and literally followed our game plan to a T today. She was awesome.”
The Lancers had defeated defending state champion St. Charles North in the sectional final.
“Honestly, I was a bit worried,” Morales said. “We got a little [scouting] card right before the game. I was like, ‘This is a big bunting team. How is this going to go?’ and then it all came together, amazing. It was just perfect.”
In the third, No. 9 hitter Cortez walked on four pitches, stole second and went to third on a ground out. After sophomore Elyssa Hasapis was intentionally walked, she initiated a delayed steal. When the ball was thrown past second base, Cortez easily scored.
Loughlin said Hasapis, the standout shortstop who played for the freshmen team in 2022, calls delayed steals on her own.
“I kind of wanted to toy with the catcher a little bit, and I noticed that when she threw down, the shortstop wasn’t covering second base,” Hasapis said.
Cortez ran like the breeze in the fourth. With the bases loaded and two outs, junior Jordan Alioto hit a popup to short right field. When the ball was dropped by the second baseman, three runs scored, including Cortez all the way from first for a 5-0 advantage.
“I was flying. I’m not going to lie,” Cortez said. “If I would have stopped, I probably would have fallen. That was just a clutch hit.”
The Huskies won the West Suburban Conference Silver Division title at 11-1 after losing their opener to Downers Grove North. Cortez said winning the rematch was among the catalysts to the team’s success.
“That’s where we started getting our momentum, because that was the biggest conference game ever,” Cortez said. “From there our winning streak went up and up and up and here we are.”