River Forest's 'Comeback Kids' enjoying inspired playoff run

Illinois 12U state champs have won 3 of 4 games at Little League Great Lakes Regional

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By Marty Farmer

Sports Editor

The River Forest 12U All-Stars baseball team's dream of playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (Aug. 15-25) is not only alive, but another step closer.

In fact, based on its stellar performance in the postseason so far, River Forest 12U is a viable contender to qualify for the international showcase tourney.

After reeling off nine straight in-state playoff wins (highlighted by a 7-6 win in extra innings over Tri-Cities to claim the Illinois State Championship), River Forest earned a 7-3 victory over Glendale (Wisconsin state champs) in both teams' Great Lakes Region Tournament opener in Westfield, Indiana on Aug. 4.

"I think our pitching and defense were the keys to winning," River Forest coach Dennis Jarnecke said. "Offensively, we were persistent and started getting more hits and walks later in the game. We had more scoring opportunities and took advantage of them."

River Forest (27-7 overall this summer) is now just a few wins away from punching its ticket to Williamsport; however, there is still work to be done at the Great Lakes double-elimination tourney, which includes 12U state champions from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Michigan.

"Going into the first game of a regional, there were some nerves with all the hoopla and television cameras," Dennis Jarnecke said. "Once the players shook off that feeling, they played great baseball. We also had a great crowd cheering us on. Our fans helped us earn that win."

Tied at 1-1 against Glendale through three innings, River Forest broke the game open with six runs over the final three frames. Aided by a couple of errors and a walk from Glendale, River Forest scored twice in the top of the fourth to establish a 3-1 lead. Dutch Navigato provided the key hit with a single that scored two runs.

In the fifth, A.J. Kilburg smacked a double to bring home Ryan Lazewski and Luke Hickey as River Forest scored three runs to extend the lead to 6-1.

Ben Jarnecke knocked in two for River Forest.

"Ben is our vocal leader and has a very powerful bat," fellow River Forest coach Matt Hickey said. "A.J. has a lot of pop at the plate as well."

Glendale responded with a pair of runs to make the score 6-3; however, the trio of River Forest pitchers, Ethan Niewoehner, Hickey and Lazewski, kept Wisconsin's best in relative check. 

Niewoehner, who started the game, allowed one run (unearned) and four hits with three strikeouts and no walks over 2.2 innings. Hickey worked the middle innings before Lazewski threw a scoreless sixth to seal the win.

Led by Thomas Haverty (4-for-4), Glendale outhit River Forest 9-6; however, the latter showed tremendous plate discipline with seven walks and played better defense. Glendale committed three errors; River Forest had one. 

River Forest celebrated its victory with a pizza party and then watched a replay of the game on ESPN+.

"The team is excited and enjoying their time in Indianapolis," Dennis Jarnecke said. "Now that we have a win under our belt and the players are more familiar with the field, those factors should help us."

The team's run of postseason wins was snapped at 10 by Bay City (12U Michigan state champs) on August 5 at the Great Lakes Regional Tournament.

Tied at 1-1 after four innings, Michigan scored nine runs in the fifth en route to a 13-5 victory. Ben Jarnecke had the only hit for River Forest (3-run triple in the fifth). Similar to its opening-round win over Wisconsin, River Forest drew seven walks and committed no errors.

Unfortunately, Bay City starter Luke LaCourse dominated River Forest early, pitching 3.1 scoreless innings with no hits and nine strikeouts. Offensively, LaCourse helped his own cause with two hits and four RBIs, while teammates Garrett Buzzard, Brayden Simmon and Colten Beson drove in two runs apiece.

Huge wins over Hamilton, Glendale

River Forest stayed alive at the tourney though via a 6-3 win over Hamilton (Ohio) in an elimination game on Tuesday, August 6.

Trailing 3-0 after four innings, River Forest rallied with six unanswered runs in the last two innings of the game. Lazewski, Luke Hickey and Kilburg each finished with two RBIs as River Forest amassed eight hits on the day. Luke Hickey earned the win after tossing 2.2 innings of scoreless relief.

The team's most recent victory exemplifies their positive attitude and effort. In several key games, River Forest has battled back from deficits to post hard-fought wins.

"They believe in each other and they never feel like they're out of any game. That showed in the [Illinois] state final comeback and again [today] in the win against Ohio," Matt Hickey said. "This is a great group of kids who've become a family. I think the fact that they're so tight-knit is a key to their success."

River Forest remained on a roll with a convincing 10-4 victory over Glendale (Wi), which eliminated the latter. 

River Forest takes on Bay City (Mi.) in the semifinals, Aug. 9 at 4 p.m. (CST). The game will be televised on ESPN.

The winner of River Forest/Bay City advances to the Great Lakes Region tourney final against Bowling Green (Ky) Augu. 10.

The River Forest 12U players are Jack Paris, Ryan Lazewski, Dutch Navigato, T.J. Nix, Ethan Niewoehner, Ben Jarnecke, Matt Carolan Jr., Jimmy O'Brien, Luke Hickey, A.J. Kilburg, Spike Gall, Nic Lissuzzo and Joey Elza. The coaches are Dennis Jarnecke, Joe Lazewski and Matt Hickey.

Email: marty@oakpark.com Twitter: @OakParkSports

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