Lyons Township vs. Oak Park and River Forest, one of the best baseball rivalries in the state, added another compelling, and occasionally heated, chapter during Saturday’s regional final showdown. Host LTHS emerged with a 5-3 win over the Huskies, extending its winning streak to 17 games and advancing to the Reavis Sectional semifinals where St. Rita awaits on Wednesday, June 4 (at 4:30 p.m.).
LTHS (27-8) struck first offensively in the bottom of the second inning when Charlie Harrigan reached on an error and later scored on an RBI groundout by Brookfield’s Buck Domabyl. The Huskies responded with a pair of runs in the top of the third, courtesy of RBI singles from Andrew Hennings and Alex Rice to take a 2-1 advantage. The Lions went ahead for good in their half of the third as OPRF starting pitcher Keith Rogalla struggled with his control, hitting a batter with a pitch, followed by three consecutive walks, the last free pass issued to Connor Pavletic, tying the game at 2-2.
OPRF reliever Sam Cottingham-Beard, who inherited a bases-loaded jam with no outs, did a reasonably good job allowing only two more runs the rest of the inning to keep the Huskies within striking range at 4-2.
OPRF (21-16) scored once more in the fourth to make it 4-3. First baseman Ian Luttrell hit a one-out double. After advancing to third on a groundout, he scored on a wild pitch by LTHS starter Tom Hickey.
The errant throw by Hickey was one of the few mistakes the rangy 6-foot-4, 170-pound right-hander made against OPRF. Hickey (8-1, 1.10 ERA) tossed a complete game to earn the win, allowing two earned runs while striking out three and walking one batter.
“I’m nominating Tom Hickey as an all-state pitcher,” LTHS coach George Ushela said. “He’s a nice pitcher with composure and big upside. With his stature, once he puts a little bit more meat on his bones, he’ll throw even harder.”
In the fifth, LTHS added an insurance run to go up 5-3 when Kyle Dilcher scored on a wild pitch by Cottingham-Beard with two outs and the bases loaded.
The postgame histrionics between the Lions and Huskies were nearly as intense as the on-field battle. After the final out, LTHS first baseman Sam Heilenbach (1-for-2, two walks) reportedly threw a baseball into the OPRF dugout which didn’t sit well with the Huskies.
While OPRF coach Chris Ledbetter and LTHS coach George Ushela have repeatedly praised one another’s programs over the years, Saturday’s dust-up didn’t sit well with either side.
“George runs a tremendous program and we’ve had a lot of battles through the years,” Ledbetter said. “At the end of the game, however, when Heilenbach threw a ball at our dugout, that’s uncalled for. [But] I wasn’t going to allow my kids to walk off the field without shaking hands; this isn’t the NBA where the Pistons walk off the court against the Bulls.”
Like Ledbetter, Ushela had a highly candid take about Saturday’s clash.
“Our rivalry has always been big and OPRF is a great baseball program,” Ushela said. “Our three games during the regular season were heated. They argued about everything and [then] today when I argued a call, [OPRF] said, “Are we going to talk about everything?” I like playing Oak Park but I don’t like the shenanigans that go on.”
Saturday’s meeting marked the first postseason game between the Huskies and Lions since their 2012 Class 4A title game clash, won by OPRF 4-3.
“It’s always fun to play Oak Park,” LTHS shortstop Sam Cybulski said. “We have a lot of respect for that program and those players. Both teams are very competitive.”