Sun June 10, 2012
By Drake Skleba
JOLIET – In a classic back-and-forth heavyweight battle for Class 4A supremacy, Oak Park-River Forest outlasted the defending Class 4A state champions from Lyons Township 4-3.
OPRF senior centerfielder Mike Brennan ripped the first pitch from Illinois State-bound right-hander Steve Heilenbach into right-field, scoring Purdue-bound Huskie catcher Jack Picchiotti with the game-winner. Picchiotti had led off the bottom of the seventh with his second triple of the game. The hit by Brennan set off a gigantic celebration on the field for the Huskie players and coaches, as the Joliet sky was filled with a massive fireworks display.
“I was looking first pitch fastball,” said Brennan. “I got it all and what a great feeling to win the game and the state championship.”
The game featured for only the third time in history, two schools from the same conference playing in the title game. Both Oak Park (31-9-1) and Lyons Township battle in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. Neither, however, won the perennially tough league; that honor went to York, with LT finishing second and the Huskies third.
The last time it happened was in 2004, when Note Dame of Niles defeated Joliet Catholic Academy, both schools from the East Suburban Catholic League, for the Class AA state title.
This game was everything and more as the old WSC-Silver rivals put on quite a show before a large crowd at Silver Cross Field in Joliet.
Seton Hall-bound lefty Zach Weigel toed the rubber for the Huskies and Heilenbach battled on the mound for the Lions. Both pitchers were lights out in the first two innings throwing hitless ball.
Weigel (8-1) fired a third hitless frame against LT in the top of the third and was given the lead in the bottom half of the third. Picchiotti ripped his first triple of the game, plating senior third baseman Colin O' Brien, who was plunked to lead off the Huskie third.
“I battled on the mound all night for us,” said Weigel, who finished with a seven hitter and four strikeouts. “I am so happy for Mike. He had a tough night tonight and it was so great to see him get the game-winner for us.”
Lyons Township (27-13-1) quickly tied things up at 1-1 an infield RBI single from senior catcher Brad Taylor.
LT grabbed a 2-1 lead on Weigel in the top of the fifth on back-to-back booming doubles from senior lead-off man Evan Booth and Heilenbach. The Lion lead was short-lived as the Huskies retook the lead 3-2, with two runs in the bottom of the fifth.
The Huskies picked up the tying run on a Heilenbach wild pitch and sophomore right-fielder Alex Rice’s single that scored Picchiotti.
LT tied things up again in the top of the sixth. Taylor ripped a double to lead off the inning. Courtesy runner junior Kevin Pikul went to third on a grounder to the right side by Lion junior Mike Lorenz. Pikul would score the tying run, when Friday’s hero No. 9 hitter Stewart Nelson beat out a slow roller in a bang-bang play at first. Nelson stole second and then on as single to left by Booth, appeared to be going to score the lead run for the defending champs.
Just as Nelson was heading into third, he was inadvertently tripped by O’Brien. A huge discussion between LT head coach George Ushela and the umpires ensued. Ushela believing Nelson should be awarded home.
The rule states that when a runner is interfered with, he is awarded the base he is attempting to get to. Thus Nelson was given third and no more. Weigel retired the final Lion hitter to escape further damage.
This classic championship battle went to the top of the seventh even at 3-3. With one out Lion senior center-fielder Matt Robare reached on a two-base error. Robare went to third on a wild pitch. Lion junior first baseman Tom Prescott hit a ground ball to Huskie senior shortstop Dan Shinsako. Shinsako bobbled the ball, but somehow kept his composure and fired a strike to Picchiotti, who put the tag on Robare. Shinsako, who only recently in the playoffs got the start at shortstop, put on a show all night, handling eight chances flawlessly.
“It's just a tremendous feeling the way came together at the end,” said Shinsako.“There was no-way I was going to let that ball get by me in the seventh. Zach pitched too great a game for that to happen. What a feeling to know we are state champions.”
In the bottom of the seventh, Picchiotti led off the inning with a triple. Ushela opted two intentionally walk the next two batters to load the bases and get to Brennan. Brennan, you see, had struck out all three of his previous at-bats.
“It was an insult,” said Brennan. “I was smiling when it happened. I know Steve (Heilenbach); I’ve played with him for three years. I knew he’d start me with a fastball.
“I’ll take the golden sombrero with the game-winning hit to win the state championship anytime.”
Brennan’s hit gave Oak Park its first championship since 1981.
“This is just a great feeling. I am so proud of the seniors on this team who worked so hard to achieve this championship,” said Picchiotti. “It was the best game I have ever been a part of. LT battled so hard. They would score, we would score, and the advantage of being home team and having the last at bats gave us the win.”
For OPRF head coach Chris Ledbetter, the championship trophy joins his two second place trophies won in 2001 and 2008.
“This is the most outstanding feeling I could possibly have. It's everything I imagined it would be,” said Ledbetter. “My goal for the 12 years I've been here was to put the program back on top where it is right now.”
Zach is a special player and really battled on the mound for us. After the seventh he told me had given everything he had. I would have brought someone else if we hadn't won it in the seventh.”
For Lyons Township, the Lions finish second and end their Lions 13-game tournament winning streak in style.
“We battled them right to the end in what was a great championship game,” said Ushela. “I really enjoyed coaching this group. We just ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.”
Heilenbach (5-5) threw well in defeat. The right-hander allowed seven hits, struck out five and walked four. His fastball sat in the 88-90 mph range for most of the game, climbing as high as 92 a few times. Offensively, Booth, Taylor and Heilenbach each had two hits apiece.