When this year’s Oak Park and River Forest High School freshman class began school Aug. 15, eight of its members were absent.
No, they were not playing hooky. Rather, the eight boys — six from Oak Park and two from River Forest — were busy taking part in the Junior League Baseball World Series that ran from Aug. 13-20 in Taylor, Michigan.
The future OPRF baseball players are part of a combined 14U team with players from Elmhurst. They are Liam Brown, Matt Davis, Tom Keane, Rob Kolovitz, Xavier Martin, Gus Peters, Graham Roberts and Grayson Waters.
“They exceeded all my expectations, every single one of them,” said OPRF senior Cameron Chi, who served as an assistant coach. “They’re going to be really good ballplayers that will be able to make a run at the state title when they’re juniors.”
River Forest Youth Baseball and Softball Association President Greg White along with the president of the Elmhurst Little League, Robbie Smith, created the combined team a few years ago.
“River Forest doesn’t have any big fields, but Elmhurst does, and they formed a team. It’s been very successful ever since,” said Elmhurst/River Forest head coach Zack White, Greg’s son. “Oak Park technically isn’t Little League, but they can play with us since they’re within our boundaries.”
White has been coaching the combined team for three years. In 2021, it won the Illinois state title, but due to COVID-19, there was neither a regional tournament nor a World Series. The following year, Elmhurst/RF finished third in Illinois.
“We were undefeated entering the state tournament but had one bad game that we lost [to Burbank],” White said.
However, they avenged that defeat in this year’s state tournament, defeating Burbank twice to win their second state title in three years and advance to the Junior League Regionals.
In the Central Regional final Aug. 6 in Midland, Michigan, Elmhurst/RF defeated the Shepherd (Michigan) Bluejays 3-0 to punch its ticket to the World Series. Waters went the distance on the mound, allowing just three hits while striking out six, and Peters drove in a pair of runs.
The Junior League World Series has a double-elimination format, and Elm/RF dropped its opening game 4-2 to Hillsdale, New Jersey, on Aug. 13.
“We were nervous that first game,” Chi said.
However, they bounced back two days later and stayed alive by beating Honolulu 10-8. Brown came out of the bullpen to notch the victory. Kolovitz went 2-for-3 with a RBI and a run scored, while Roberts had two RBI.
“Hawaii is a powerhouse, and I was so happy,” White said. “It was a tough fight, back and forth.”
Unfortunately, Elmhurst/RF was eliminated from title contention Aug. 17, falling in a wild contest 14-12 to Irmo, South Carolina. Kolovitz again went 2-for-3 and scored twice, while Roberts scored three runs.
Despite the tough loss, Elmhurst/RF managed to get into the record books.
“It’s apparently the longest game in Junior League history,” White said. “Around the third inning, we had a rain delay of about nine hours and didn’t restart until about 9:50 p.m. local time. The field was in terrible shape, but they did a good job getting it as playable as possible. It was a crazy game with a lot of different emotions.”
But the team managed to end its experience on a positive note in a consolation game Aug. 19. After spotting Puerto Rico eight runs in the top of the first inning, Elmhurst/RF responded with eight runs of its own in the bottom half.
Then in the third, a double by Kolovitz (4 RBI) plated the eventual winning run as the team held on for a 9-8 victory.
“Overall, it was a very cool experience,” Chi said. “Seeing the boys talk and bond with especially the international players was cool to see. They grew as people, and I was proud to see that.”
A former baseball player himself whose career got cut short, Chi wanted to stay involved with the game, so he volunteered his services to a local traveling team, AI-9 Pack, which was looking for another assistant coach.
“I still loved the game and didn’t want to walk away from it,” Chi said.
He gives White the credit for this year’s success and enjoys working with him. He also wants to keep coaching in the future.
“I’ve got some good resources, including coach White,” Chi said. “I’m going to continue coaching this summer for Pack, and we’ll see how college works out.”