August 13th, 2019 12:00 PM
The River Forest 12U baseball team finished second at the Little League Great Lakes Region Tournament and also won the 12U Illinois state title. (Photo by Tom Legan)
By Marty Farmer
With the exception of two disastrous innings over six games, the River Forest 12U All-Stars arguably played well enough to win the Great Lakes Region Tournament in Westfield, Indiana.
River Forest gave up nine runs in an inning during losses to Bay City Northwest (Mich.) and Bowling Green (Ky.), the latter unfortunately occurring during a 15-6 loss in the Great Lakes Regional final.
Consequently, River Forest fell tantalizingly one game short of advancing to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (Aug. 15-25).
Instead, Bowling Green will compete in the prestigious LLWS for the third time in five years.
The South Central Kentucky squad has been playing inspired baseball, in large part to honor the memory of Mason Goodnight, a former teammate who passed away when he was 10 in 2017. Mason, whose jersey is displayed in the dugout during games, is referred to by the players as the team's "Guardian." Jef Goodnight, his father, coaches Bowling Green.
After taking a 3-1 lead after the first inning, Bowling Green broke the game open early by scoring nine runs in the second to establish a commanding 12-1 advantage on the scoreboard.
Although River Forest outscored Bowling Green 5-3 the rest of the game (highlighted by a 4-run fourth), the deficit proved insurmountable.
Luke Hickey and A.J. Kilburg both went 2-for-3 with an RBI for River Forest, while teammates Jack Paris, Ben Jarnecke and Nick Lissuzzo each drove in a run as well.
River Forest clearly didn't play its best game offensively, but the team struggled more with uncharacteristically shaky pitching and defense. River Forest gave up 15 runs (4 unearned), 13 hits and committed five errors.
Bowling Green's Evan Schallert, Jameson Napper, William Alexander and Harrison Yates paced a balanced attack with two hits apiece for the victors.
Despite the disappointing result in the Great Lakes Region championship game, River Forest produced a historic postseason run, becoming the first 12U group during its 67 years of existence in town to win a state championship.
"I am so proud to be a part of River Forest baseball and to have the opportunity to coach these amazing boys along with my fellow coaches Joe [Lazewski] and Matt [Hickey]," River Forest coach Dennis Jarnecke said. "It was an incredible run and once in a lifetime experience for all of us."
After that remarkable accomplishment, River Forest won four of six games at the Great Lakes Region. During its inspired run, the team won 13 of 15 games in the state and regional playoffs and finished 28-9 overall this summer
"The players believe in each other and they never feel like they're out of any game," Matt Hickey said. "This is a great group of kids who've become a family. I think the fact that they're so tight-knit is a key to their success."
Coach Jarnecke added: "This team doesn't have one or two standout players. It's a balanced group with great depth. The players really support each other as well. It's just a great group of kids."
At the Great Lakes Region tourney, River Forest defeated Bay City Northwest (Mich.) 4-2 in a semifinal-elimination game on Aug. 8.
Tied at 1-1, River Forest scored three runs in the second inning when Matt Carolan tripled to bring home a pair of runs. Paris added an RBI to make the score 4-1.
That would be more than enough offensive support for River Forest's starting pitcher Kilburg. He threw a gem, allowing two runs on four hits with nine strikeouts over 5.1 innings on 85 pitches (52 strikes).
Left-hander Luke Hickey preserved the victory by getting the last two outs for River Forest.
The defensive play of the game occurred in the bottom of the third when River Forest turned an unconventional "double play" to halt a scoring opportunity for Bay City Northwest. After River Forest right fielder Spike Gall caught a fly ball out by Reese Southern, he threw out Hayden Ruff at home plate who attempted to tag up from third base. Gall's perfect throw to catcher Ben Jarnecke arrived in plenty of time to tag out Ruff.
Offensively, River Forest finished with five hits and drew three walks. The team scored its first run when Hickey hit a single that scored Paris who had also singled and stole second base.
"Going into the first game of a regional, there were some nerves with all the hoopla and television cameras," Dennis Jarnecke said. "Once the players shook off that feeling, they have played great baseball.
"It was also incredible for the fans to root on these boys," he added. "From the fans in the stands to all the fans back home watching us on TV, they could not have done this without the amazing support from our family and friends."
Although River Forest 12U won't compete in the Little League World Series, the team still has more baseball left. They are playing at a tournament this week in Cooperstown, New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.