Ends season 20-2 in historic fashion
by Keith Stewart
You could certainly say OVMS’s third place finish at the IESA state baseball tournament has been, for some time, in the making.
Taking the head coach position six years ago, Chris Nichols recalls first talking to his team in 2008 about a state run.
They ended up managing one win on the season.
But Nichols’ teams steadily improved each year, from that one win season to three-peat regional champions and now a third place finish at the state tournament.
The last two years, the Okaw Valley Middle School baseball team earned the no. 1 seed in their regional but each year fell at the hands of St. Anthony. This year, the Timberwolves were ready for some payback.
“They kept us from going to state twice so from the first day of practice, we’d talked about this,” said Nichols.
Meeting in the regional championship, OVMS devoured St. Anthony 15-4, sending a clear message that they meant business.
The team then inherited Mt. Olive and soon swept pass them with a 9-0 victory, which also doubled as a historic moment for OVMS, as no other team prior in school history had reached the state series.
Travelling to East Peoria to the EastSide Centre, the team went in with the best record among all qualifiers at 18-1 and was matched up with Normal Epiphany (19-4) on Friday.
The Timberwolves wasted no time, scoring four of their eventual six runs in just the first inning, thanks to a grand slam by Cody Drake.
“We told them all year long, get on base early, and we did,” said Nichols. “Their pitcher had no choice but to throw Cody strikes and a fast ball, and he smacked it 270 feet straight center field. It really set the tone, and it shut Normal down in the dug out.”
That offensive production combined with the team’s number one ace in Garrett Fritz, who went all seven innings, allowing just four hits, one run, and striking out seven, led to a 6-1 victory.
“Garrett did a phenomenal job on the mound,” said Nichols. “He threw strikes and then let the defense do the work. He’s consistently been our no. 1 pitcher all year. He did a fantastic job. He just gives the defense a lot of confidence when he pitches. I think where he’s going one day, they don’t use metal bats. You’ll be hearing a lot about him for years to come.”
The team next faced Joliet St. Paul, who entered with the worst record of 11-5, but as the Timberwolves were soon to discover and as Nichols already knew, their record was misleading, to say the least.
“We knew Joliet was going to be really good,” said Nichols. “I’d seen their schedule. Their wins were big wins, and their losses were to some pretty good teams.”
Having watched Joliet play on Friday, Nichols planned on using his lefty Austin Harshman to counter the left-handed majority of batters, especially since he couldn’t really rely on his no. 1 ace again due to strict guidelines.
“When you go into the state tournament, you have pitching limitations,” said Nichols. “No single pitcher can pitch more than seven innings in a day or more than nine innings in two days, so no team could use their best pitcher all the way through, you have to rely on others.
“So it was actually a battle of two lefties,” added Nichols. “Ours was around four feet tall, and their’s was more like 6 feet 4 inches. Their pitcher threw a lot of junk, a lot of off-speed stuff, and we didn’t stay as disciplined as we had all year. I think we were a little anxious. When we finally did hit, we hit right at their guys.
“If you look at the box score, it’s not conducive to how well Austin pitched. We made a few errors and on a few hits, we just didn’t get to the ball like we could have…we never got to the point of really threatening them, and they just chipped away a little here, a little there.”
Joliet didn’t put the game away until the seventh inning, when they tallied three runs, the most of any inning during the game. Other runs came in the first (1), third (1), fourth, (2), and sixth (1). Joliet recorded 16 hits compared to OVMS’s five. Joliet went on to win 8-0.
With the loss, the Timberwolves were out of championship contention but still had a shot at finishing third.
Just three hours later, OVMS faced off against Jacksonville Our Savior, who had just experienced a tough 7-5 semifinal loss to Bartonville Oak Grove West.
“I told the guys before the game that they had just taken a difficult loss and that if we could get on the board first, we could knock them down early.”
The Timberwolves did just that, scoring one run in both the first and second innings.
That coupled with the pitching from Hayden Francisco and solid defense paved the way to a 3-1 victory.
“We knew that we could defend the ball, and Hayden went out and flawlessly executed for six innings. We were only wanting three out of him so as to allow us to get Garrett back in.”
Jacksonville’s Hunter Chumley hit a home run in the sixth, prompting Fritz’s trip to the mound.
“He just shut the door on them,” said Nichols.
“Our guys were really loose in that game because I think the pressure of winning a championship was off and they knew, regardless, they were bringing home some hardware.
“We put the ball in play. Cody and Garrett got us going with their bats, and Jacksonville’s body language was down; we were in control from the beginning.”
The third place finish has certainly turned a few heads too. The little team of Timberwolves had eagerly searched out bigger, stronger opponents earlier in the season, including several Chicago Suburban teams, but to no avail. Nichols even tried soliciting Teutopolis earlier in the year, who did send their “B” team, not realizing how strong a group OVMS was.
“Nobody wanted to play us because they thought they’d beat us. I got a hold of a couple 3A teams up north, but they wouldn’t send their teams down here. I ended up seeing T-Town’s coach at the state finals, and he told me, ‘Had I known you were this good, I would have sent my “A” team. It was just really fulfilling to sort of prove everyone wrong.”
OVMS ended their season at 20-2, the best exiting record of this year’s state series.
“It’s really fulfilling,” said Nichols. “The simple fact that since the first day of practice, we talked about going to state and what it takes to be a state team... They’re not athletes, they’re baseball players, and when we get off a bus, we don’t scare you, but they are baseball players, and they’re smart. They get to enjoy a little celebrity status around here, and this is something they’ll enjoy and remember the rest of their lives.”
Not only will the players, coaches, and even parents get to revel in the third place historic finish but so will the towns of Findlay and Bethany.
“There were so many of our fans there,” said Nichols. “If they weren’t the loudest fan base, they were close to it. It was unreal. I think half the towns shutdown to go up there.”
And for Nichols, the finish is bittersweet, since it marks his last year as head coach, at least for a while. When he isn’t coaching or attending seminars as part of that duty, Nichols is acting police chief for the town of Findlay. He and his wife, who is a nurse, are also expecting another baby, their third, and with his two other children participating in school and sport related functions, Nichols says his schedule has become all but impossible to handle.
“It’s getting to the point where for 12 weeks the two of us are never home together,” he said. “I didn’t want to [quit coaching]– I love coaching and have been since I was 18. Hopefully down the road I’ll be able to return, but right now I need to devote time to my family.”
“It was a lot of fun,” added the Casey-Westfield native. “I’m just glad we were able to do this for the communities, the school, the parents, and the kids. Our program’s improvement culminated with this trip, and, if you’re going to leave, it’s always good to go out on top.”