Prep Baseball Report

Oak Park punches ticket to Class 4A state title game

By Sean Duncan

JOLIET - Oak Park had lived on the edge during its run to the Class 4A state semifinals, winning a string of narrow contests. On Friday, the Huskies gave themselves some wiggle room, putting the pressure on upstart Grant early and cruised to an 8-2 victory at Silver Cross Field.

The victory sends Oak Park (29-9-1) to the Class 4A state championship game on Saturday against West Suburban Silver Conference rival Lyons Township. The Huskies, making their 13th state appearance, will look to win its first state title since 1981.

“It was the first playoff game we got out early and stayed in control,” said Oak Park coach Chris Ledbetter, who has guided the Huskies to two second-place finishes in 2001 and 2008. “It was the first time we got to relax a little.”

Before the fans could settle in, Oak Park jumped out to a quick 2-0 advantage. Seton Hall-bound centerfielder Zach Weigel took a fastball off the shoulder the first pitch of the game. The next pitch, catcher Jack Picchiotti laced a single, and then a defensive error scored Weigel. Sophomore right fielder Alex Rice drove in Picchiotti to make it 2-0.

“Right away, they had the bases loaded in a blink of an eye,” said Grant right-handed pitcher Zack Helmich, who finished his impressive senior year at 11-2. 

Oak Park, which pounded out 10 hits, got contributions up and down the lineup. Junior first baseman Nick Kowalczuk went 2-for-4 with a two-run single in the fourth inning that staked the Huskies to a 5-0 advantage. Left fielder Matt McCormack went 3-for-4 with a run-scoring double, and senior third baseman Mike Brennan contributed two RBI, two runs and a hit.

Senior right-hander Joe McKune (7-2) handled the rest. McKune threw a six-hit complete game, finishing with three strikeouts and three walks. McKune worked the entire game in the 84-86 mph range and threw two different breaking balls to keep Grant hitters off balance. McKune will play golf at Carthage next year.

“I thought if we could settle in the first inning, it would make things a little easier playing with a lead,” said Ledbetter. “When Joe (McKune) is nice and calm, he doesn’t get beat.”

Grant (25-12), making its first appearance in the state semifinals, couldn’t quite rebound from its poor start. Sophomore catcher Simeon Lucas was a definite bright spot. The left-handed hitter went 3-for-3 with two doubles and an RBI. Tino Torres added two hits and drove in a run in the seventh inning.