By Marty Farmer
I've always admired the way skilled athletes move — particularly during practice. There's a liberating element to practice that typically allows athletes to perform better than games.
I consider it athletic muscle memory without consequence. With no wins and losses at stake, players tend to play loose. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar refers to it as finding Chi in his book, "Giant Steps." In certain games, he would find his Chi, a vibrant life force internally that allowed his body to move freely void of any tensions or distractions. I think the kids today call it "being in the zone."
A week ago today, I stopped by the Oak Park and River Forest High School softball team's last practice on their home field of the season. The following day, the Huskies boarded a bus for Peoria to vie for their second straight Class 4A state championship.
You probably know how the story ended. However, just in case you haven't—the Huskies performed like the true champions they are by outlasting Lincoln-Way East 1-0 in a classic pitchers duel in the state championship game.
Even though the game was played in East Peoria, OPRF catcher Mariah Scott hit "the shot heard round Scoville" that put the Huskies ahead 1-0 in the top of the seventh. That's all the team needed with senior pitcher Chardonnay Harris tossing a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts.
Throughout the postseason, Harris turned in a Terminator-like performance against opponents. For the season, the Auburn-bound lefty went 19-0 with a 0.29 ERA, 18 complete games, 14 shutouts, nine walks and 233 strikeouts.
Watching the Huskies work out four days before they put the finishing touches on an inconceivable two-year run that produced a pair of state titles and a 74-3 record, I knew OPRF would win state. With huge respect for the other state semifinalists Lincoln-Way East, Barrington and Marist, it was a fait accompli in my mind.
It felt like seeing the trailer of a movie you know will be great. In that regard, I felt privy to witness the champs' preparation.
Head coach Mel Kolbusz was gracious enough to let me briefly address the girls before practice. I congratulated the Huskies for their success and that for the second straight year they have been chosen as the Wednesday Journal "Female Team of the Year." Additionally and unequivocally, Harris earned "Female Athlete of the Year."
Both accomplishments will be honored at our upcoming "Night of Champions 3" on Tuesday, June 20 (6 p.m.-9 p.m.) at Lund Auditorium on the Dominican University campus in River Forest. By the way, this event is free and open to the public. It's a very unique awards show honoring elite teams, players and coaches from local high schools. I highly recommend you check it out, and thanks for allowing me the gratuitous plug of a show the entire Wednesday Journal staff is very proud of.
The girls accepted the news with enthusiasm and then I quickly sat on the bleachers to take in practice.
For the next 20 minutes, I was mesmerized by the OPRF infield of third baseman Katie O'Shea, shortstop Maeve Nelson, second baseman Fiona Girardot and first baseman Allison Smart, along with the aforementioned heroic battery of Harris (pitcher) and Scott (catcher). Like Kareem, the Huskies happily existed in their own Chi whipping the ball around from base to base.
As assistant coach J.P. Coughlin hit ground balls to these players I simply shook my head at the alacrity these girls played with around the diamond. Whether is was defending bunts, turning double plays or picking balls deep in the hole, the players' ability, individually, and seamless effectiveness, collectively, was in full flight.
I've always been a fan of elite infields. Growing up as a Dodgers fan, I was raised on Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey. O'Shea, Nelson, Girardot and Smart is in my top two.
Wednesday's practice was far more than muscle memory without consequence. I'll just say it. At the risk of serving this column with excessive cheese, the girls' teamwork was both beautiful and inspiring.
Who needs to go to the state final when I can watch the Huskies from the best seat in the house on a sunny afternoon in town?
In the outfield and batting cages, the other players worked on their fundamentals. Speakers blared an eclectic selection of songs ranging from the 1980s to now. Kudos to the Huskies for mixing in Pat Benetar's "Love is a Battlefield," a song from my high school days. This old guy appreciates it.
Yep, the practice permeated a perfect mix of fun and business. It reminded me of when I used to visit Major League Baseball spring training camps in Florida towns like Vero Beach, Clearwater and Kissimmee.
Scott, who has solidified her place in Huskies lore with her state-title winning home run, summed up OPRF practices best.
"We might practice like its business as usual," she said, "but when we play it's serious business."
Before I left practice, Kolbusz came by to thank me for the Wednesday Journal's coverage of OPRF softball. The feeling couldn't be more mutual. While objectivity is paramount as a sports writer, I'd be lying if I said the OPRF softball beat isn't one of my favorite covers.
There is just something special about the program.
It starts with Kolbusz, who has amassed 713 wins and three state titles during his time coaching the Huskies. More importantly, he builds wonderful relationships with his players.
A few days removed another state championship, the prominent reflection I have of the Huskies is relationships.
Watching them fire the ball around the infield, Kolbusz interacting with his players, and of course, Harris and O'Shea engaging in a dance off down the third baseline is the essence of OPRF softball.
One immutable truth I've learned about the Huskies the past two seasons is they are not only the best team in the state, they have the best dancers — with Harris leading the way. She's got more moves than pitches.
Amid all the frivolity, practice also felt bittersweet — not only for the players but for me. This would be the last time we would be together.
In closing and to paraphrase former NBA great Allen Iverson, I'm talking about practice, not the game, practice. On Wednesday, June 7, 2017 at the OPRF softball field, practice was perfect.