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New look-Huskies keep high expectations

Despite losing seven starters, OPRF new coach Parenti likes potential of players

March 14th, 2017 12:41 PM

OPRF sophomore catcher Luke Fitzgerald is a solid defensively and handles a pitching staff well. This spring, he hopes to add more offensive firepower to the Huskies' inexperienced lineup. (Photo by Steven Talley)

Matt Le Cren

Contributing Reporter

The coach is new and so are many of the players, but the expectations remain the same for the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball team.

The Huskies return only two starters and seven players overall from a team that went 28-8, won the West Suburban Conference Silver Division title and reached the sectional final.

They also have a new coach in Joe Parenti, who takes the reins from Chris Ledbetter, who is on a leave of absence.

This is the first head coaching position for Parenti, who has spent his entire coaching career as an assistant at OPRF. This is his 11th season at the school and ninth on the varsity.

"It's great," Parenti said. "Oak Park has a great tradition going back many years.

"I'm hoping to continue what the previous teams have accomplished and hope to continue the tradition."

Parenti will have to do it without any of the stars who led the Huskies to 90 wins over the past three seasons, which included a state semifinal appearance in 2015. They graduated five all-conference players, including WSC Silver Player of the Year Connor Nelson and WSC Silver Pitcher of the Year Hank Christie.

"We're not bringing a lot of guys back but they are ready to go and have a lot of confidence," Parenti said. "We're not expecting anything less than having a successful season.

"We'll be a difficult team to beat. A lot of these guys are ready to prove themselves and they're ready to get a lot accomplished."

The only returning starters are sophomore catcher Luke Fitzgerald and junior outfielder Brian May, who might return to his natural position of shortstop.

Fitzgerald pulled off the rare feat of earning the starting catcher's job as a freshman. But he's the second player to do that in recent years for the Huskies and is only the third starting catcher the team has had in the past nine seasons.

Fitzgerald didn't make much of an impact with the bat as a rookie but he handled a veteran pitching staff well.

"Last year our pitching staff was mostly seniors and they were very confident," Parenti said. "It was tough for Luke being a freshman on varsity.

"Now we don't look at Luke as a sophomore. He played in some tight games last year, including the sectional title game.

"In the playoffs he got comfortable and stepped up. He's better prepared and ready for a leadership role."

That will be important because the rotation is inexperienced. Senior Roy Iverson is the only pitcher with significant varsity experience. Senior Evan Nieslawski and junior Brendan Barrett figure to play large roles and will depend on Fitzgerald to help call games.

"(Fitzgerald) is always smooth and cool," Parenti said. "He never lets his emotions get the best of him. Pitchers like him for that.

"If he went 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 he was the same."

Parenti expects Fitzgerald to produce more offensively this season. Where the runs come from is a question mark but not a big concern even as the lineup has yet to take shape.

"We're not worried about the hitting as much as people think we might be," Parenti said. "We're very confident with our guys."

Some of the hitters who provide some excitement include senior second baseman Ryan Molina, who belted two home runs during summer league action, junior left fielder Jack Brennan, and sophomore Griffin Holderfield. Nieslawski also will contribute when he's not pitching.

"Holderfield is the biggest kid on the team," Parenti said. "He has a lot of potential.

"Nieslawski is a tough out and does a lot of the little things."