Coming off an exciting 15-14 sectional semifinals win over Maine South capped by a walk-off grand slam by Mary Jones, the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball team entered Saturday's 4A Niles West Sectional title game against York on a high note.
"Mary Jones crushed a grand slam to keep us alive in the playoffs," OPRF second baseman Fiona Girardot said. "The joy we felt after that game was comparable to a win at the state tournament. We faced a lot of different adversities during that game and we overcame the challenge as a team. It was the highlight of our season."
Additionally, with their highly productive offense having scored eight runs in an earlier game against York freshman star pitcher Lauren Derkowski, the Huskies (26-6) had every reason to feel confident about facing the top-seeded Dukes.
However, there is an old adage in baseball and softball that says more often than not, good pitching beats good hitting in the playoffs.
Derkowski took it to a new level. Not only did the precocious freshman dominate in the pitcher's circle - allowing only two hits while striking out 13 batters, her three-run homer proved to be the decisive blow as York defeated OPRF 6-1 to end the Huskies' bid for three straight state championships.
Derkowski held one of the most powerful offenses in the history of Illinois softball. The Huskies slugged a program-record 62 home runs in 26 games during the regular season.
"That game we beat OPRF earlier (9-8 win) was crazy. I was feeling sick that day, I was just there," Derkowski said of giving up the eight runs. "But it was good for us to come back against them. I think that gave us a lot of confidence."
"It feels terrific to beat OPRF," added York coach Elizabeth Munn. "We had a plan against them and it worked."
The game was scoreless for the first three innings as Derkowski and OPRF junior Taylor Divello matched zeroes. After being retired in order during the first inning, the Huskies managed to put two runners on base in each of the next two frames thanks to three walks and a hit-by-pitch, but couldn't score.
With one out in the top of the fourth, Olivia Glass recorded OPRF's first hit with a single. After Maddie Grant followed with another single, Maeve Ryan advanced the baserunners via a sacrifice bunt. A walk to Carli Tucci loaded the bases. With Annie Deamer-Nagle at the plate, Glass scored on a wild pitch by Derkowski. Later in the same at-bat, Derkowski tossed another wild pitch, but the ball ricocheted off the backstop so quickly that York catcher Madison Collins was able to retrieve it and toss it to Derkowski to tag out Grant at the plate.
"That was a big out for us," Derkowski said. "It ended their biggest threat."
In the bottom of the fourth, Kyra Kroll and Andrea Meagher singled for the Dukes. With two outs, Derkowski greatly helped her cause by blasting a three-run homer to left for a 3-1 lead
"There wasn't much thinking going on," Derkowski said. "I just knew I needed to get a base hit and help my team."
In the fifth, the Dukes (27-12-1) tacked on three more runs to put the game away. Jane Moran led off with a double and Collins drew a walk. Kroll doubled to drive in Moran and end Divello's day. OPRF freshman Cassie Metzger entered and Isabel Smith performed a successful safety squeeze bunt to bring home Johanna Moyer (designated runner for Collins).Then Meagher drove in Kroll with a single to increase the York lead to 6-1.
Derkowski, who has made an oral commitment to Michigan, allowed the Huskies only one baserunner the final three innings (one-out walk to Maeve Ryan in the top of the seventh).
"Lauren was top of her game today," Munn said. "She thrives in these big games. She gave up some walks early but she got out of jams. She's a fierce competitor."
Whether it was her fastball or changeup, she kept OPRF off-balance as a pair of singles by Glass and Grant in the fourth inning turned out to be the Huskies' lone hits.
"OPRF is a really good hitting team," Derkowski said. "As long as we have a variety of pitches, we can keep them off-balance and that helps us a lot."
OPRF coach Mel Kolbusz knew the Dukes' prized freshman could be problematic.
"We knew (Derkowski) was a good pitcher," Kolbusz said. "She was on her game today and shut us down."
Divello allowed six runs in four-plus innings for OPRF. She gave up seven hits and walked two while striking out three. Metzger allowed one hit during her two innings of work.
"We gave it a good effort today," Kolbusz said. "We just ran up against a really hot pitcher. York played the better game today and won. Congratulations to them."
York advances to the Class 4A Rosemont supersectional and will face St. Charles North at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Despite the loss that ended OPRF's quest for a three-peat, Kolbusz already has countless memories of the Huskies' historic run.
"Any time I get to coach outstanding young ladies like this group, it's a pleasure and a privilege," he said. "The last few years have been awesome. In 2015, we finished third in the state, first in 2016 and 2017. We were hoping for the three-peat this year, but sometimes things just don't go your way. Today just wasn't our day."
OPRF loses six seniors to graduation, including starters Deamer-Nagle, Glass and Maeve Nelson.
"They're just outstanding ladies," said Kolbusz of his seniors. "The seniors that don't play as much as the starters, they're still out there working hard all the time. They've done everything we've asked them to do. We're going to miss them a lot."
Girardot added, "We're really going to miss our seniors and the experience they brought to our team. They taught us to never give up and we always have a shot at winning any game when we work as a team."
The good news for Huskies fans is that several starters will be back next season, including Jones, Girardot, Grant, Ryan, Nellie Kamenitsa-Hale and Carli Tucci. Divello, Metzger, and Zoe Prouty return as well to comprise the pitching staff.
In addition, the OPRF freshman team finished with a stellar 19-1 record so talent remains in the pipeline.
"We've got enough back to be good again," Kolbusz said. "We've also got our whole pitching staff back. That's something we can build on. Hopefully, everyone is going to get to play more and get better. We'll see what we can do next year."
Answer Book 2018
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