The Natural

Nelson is a three-sport star at OPRF with five varsity letters and a state title in two years

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By Matt Le Cren

Contributing reporter

By now one thing has become obvious about Oak Park and River Forest shortstop Maeve Nelson.

We are witnessing the career of one of the greatest female athletes in school history.

The 5-foot-10 sophomore is a three-sport star who already has earned five varsity letters in volleyball, basketball and softball, and has committed to play softball for Northwestern.

If Nelson's career ended today, it would be more illustrious than all but a select few. She secured her place in local sports lore for what she did Saturday night.

With the Huskies one strike away from defeat, Nelson belted a game-tying triple to right field in the top of the seventh inning of the Class 4A state title game against Normal West.

In the 10th inning, she walked and scored the final run, then added a defensive gem in the bottom of the inning as the Huskies knocked off the Wildcats 4-2 in 10 innings at Eastside Centre in East Peoria to win their second state championship.

It was OPRF's first state title since 2005, when they beat Moline 4-1 in 11 innings. This game tied for the fifth-longest in title game history and was an instant classic.

It also was the realization of a dream more than 30 years in the making for a prominent River Forest sports family.

Nelson's parents, Scott and Ellen, are diehard Huskies supporters who starred at OPRF in the 1980s.

Scott led the baseball team to the state semifinals in 1984 and 1985 before playing minor league baseball. Ellen was a star volleyball player who enjoyed a standout career at Iowa.

But they never led the Huskies to a state title. Maeve, the middle of their five children, has done it.

Does that give her family bragging rights?

"Definitely," Nelson said with a laugh. "But (her parents) have just been telling me the entire time that they have faith in me, that they're so proud of me.

"I'm so thankful for them, that they've done everything that they have for me."

Nelson's older sisters, Kiley and Allie (who graduated last month), did their best to win a state title but came up three wins short in 2013, leading the volleyball team its first supersectional appearance since 1987.

Maeve long has been touted as the best pure athlete of the bunch. She has handled the high expectations of outsiders and friends alike with dignity and class.

"It's cool to be the first one to win state, but there have been so many successes in my family," Nelson said. "It's a lot to live up to, but I'm cracking away piece by piece. This is just another step in that direction."

Scott Nelson, who owns Strikes Baseball Academy and also has two other children, fourth-grader Grace and second-grader John, had to fight back tears as he watched Maeve and her teammates hoist the championship trophy.

"My wife and I are really very proud of Maeve and all of our children," Scott said. "This is a great moment for our whole family.

"Ellen and I both played at Oak Park and we've been pursuing this thing for a long time."

Nelson and her teammates nearly climbed to the top of the mountain last year, when they finished third in the state. Nelson was the only freshman to earn All-State honors.

But Maeve really took off this season, leading the Huskies in nearly every statistical category, including batting average (.492), home runs (10), RBI (52), and runs (49). She went 2-for-4 in Friday's 5-0 semifinal win over DeKalb, setting the stage for Saturday's stunning events.

"She just came up with big plays all year for us," OPRF coach Mel Kolbusz said. "She's super-talented, obviously, but she is so determined and driven in everything she does.

"If we're doing something in drills that requires running, they're all running 100 percent, but she's at 110.

"If I say, 'Maeve, everybody's going to take 10 swings,' she'll take 25 swings. She's just the hardest-working kid, plus her talent is unbelievable. It's just obvious."

And not just to the coaches. Her teammates have heard the hype for years and say she is as good as advertised.

"She is and she keeps improving," OPRF senior pitcher Emily Richardson said. "I've been so proud of her this year. 

"She has improved much more than she had last year. She just keeps taking those steps up and she becomes another caliber of player every year. I'm excited to see what she has to bring in the future. She's going to have a great career here and at Northwestern."

Nelson brought a ton of talent as the best player on the best team in program history. The Huskies (37-2) set the school record for wins and won their final 27 games.

Nelson saved her best for last and her clutch triple off Seton Hall-bound Reganne Camp likely will be talked about for decades. With the team's season on the line, the fun-loving Nelson embraced the pressure.

"I looked at my bat and I just smiled," Nelson said. "I was so happy that I was in that situation and I was able to get the hit that I wanted.

"When I finally got to third I almost started crying, it was so emotional. It was just so awesome."

Teammates praise Nelson

The Huskies have seen Nelson come through in the clutch so often they have come to expect it.

"I was not surprised," OPRF freshman second baseman Fiona Girardot said. "I knew she was going to get a hit because that's very Maeve-like.

"I love working with Maeve. She's an awesome friend and I know (she) always has my back. We always get the job done together."

Indeed, Nelson was on second base after drawing her second walk when Girardot delivered the go-ahead, two-run, two-out double to left in the 10th inning.

In the bottom of the inning, Nelson made a tremendous leaping catch to rob Ellie Sonetz of a hit. Nelson knocked the ball into the air at the top of her jump before catching it and firing a strike to first base that nearly doubled a runner off first base.

That play loomed large when Camp singled one out later to bring the winning run to the plate before Chardonnay Harris struck out Amanda Rogers to end it.

"Maeve is more than my friend right now," Harris said. "She's a great player, one of my best friends. I grew up with her, so (winning state with her) means everything to me."

Nelson means a lot to the Huskies, but while she will gladly talk about her play and that of her teammates, you will never hear her brag. She gets her humility from her father, who claimed he didn't teach Maeve much about hitting.

"No, he taught me everything I know," Nelson said. "I don't really hit with him as much anymore, but when I was young it was an everyday thing.

"We would hit every day after breakfast and every day after lunch. That's the reason (for her success)."

The example that Nelson sets, as much as her talent, is one of the reasons the Huskies are state champions. She takes nothing for granted, even when Normal West's upset of top-ranked Downers Grove South in the semifinals made OPRF the prohibitive favorite on Saturday.

"We knew what we were getting into," Nelson said. "We knew that we couldn't come in thinking we were going to win, because the ball could play in anyone's favor today.

"We've always had a good program. OPRF is known to be good in softball, but we haven't won state since 2005. So it meant a lot to come back down here after losing last year and get another chance at it."

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