Last Dance organizers announced the brackets Saturday for its 222-team, statewide high school baseball tournament — an event aimed at giving back what the COVID-19 pandemic took away this spring.
And now it’s time to play ball.
The Last Dance Tournament will start with pool-play July 14-16. About 60 sites statewide will be used based on location, placing teams into 32 regions. Most regions will have two groups of four teams. After three pool play games, the top two from each will then play for the regional championship.
The seedings and host sites were announced on Jersey Sports Zone’s YouTube channel. The announcement had an NCAA March Madness selection show vibe, breaking down every region and had interviews with players, coaches and organizers.
The 32 regional champions advance to the single-elimination rounds July 21-29. There will be two brackets — North and South Jersey — with 16 teams each. The North and South winners will play for the state title July 30.
Teams are not allowed to wear school-issued uniforms and raised money for transportation and shirts. Some schools could not use their normal team names and entered accordingly.
Vineland, Ocean City, Holy Spirit, Egg Harbor Township, Cedar Creek, ACIT, Millville, Barnegat, Southern Regional, Pinelands Regional, Mainland Regional and Buena Regional are the local teams competing in the Last Dance.
Ocean City is supposed to host the only region in the state with one group — a competitive, six team field with all Press-area teams.
The Raiders (Ocean City) earned the top seed. BPC Spartans (Holy Spirit) earned the second seed. Triple Crown Sport (EHT) is No. 3, EHC Pirates (Cedar Creek) is No. 4, Atlantic County RedHawks (ACIT) is No. 5 and Millville Lightning (Millville) is the sixth seed.
John Kroeger, who along with St. Joseph (Metuchen) athletic director and coach Mike Murray and Millburn coach Brian Chapman organized the Last Dance, called the Ocean City group “the strongest in the state.”
“The best teams are down there, and someone has to make it out of there,” said Kroeger, who said two teams could finish pool-play 3-0 and may have to have a tiebreaker.
“We will figure it out from there when or if the time comes. But that’s why I’m going down there. That’s baseball right there. Listen, I’m going down there.”
Vineland is the top seed in the Pitman group at Glassboro High School. Barnegat will be a host site and grabbed the second seed in its group. Also in that group is third-seeded Southern. Pinelands is the second seed in the Bayville group at Leiter Field. Finally, Mainland grabbed the top seed and Buena the fourth in the Williamstown group.
The Last Dance is sanctioned by the United States Specialty Sports Association, not the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which governs most high school sports in the state.
But the tournament must adhere to the NJSIAA’s summer coaching guidelines, which says coaches cannot coach their players until July 13.
There is a 25-man roster limit. Teams have unlimited defensive substitutions, and could bat 10 or 11 players. There are no pitch count or inning limits, but coaches have been asked not to overuse pitchers. The main goal is to have seniors play as much as possible for one “last dance” in high school.
“You always like to play the best when you can,” Ocean City coach Andrew Bristol said about his region. “I have tremendous respect for all those coaches. I’m just looking forward to getting out on the field, especially with our seniors ... and nothing fazes our players. We just want to play and have some fun.
“Baseball is all about fun, first and foremost.”
Every coach, player and umpire will have their temperature checked before each game. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will be sent home. Players and coaches are required to wear masks in the dugout, but players don’t have to wear facial coverings on the field.
After pool play, all single-elimination games will be played at minor league parks, including TD Bank Ballpark (Somerset Patriots), Skylands Park (Sussex County Miners) and FirstEnergy Park (Lakewood Blue Claws), with the championship game at Arm & Hammer Park (Trenton Thunder).
The tournament will only take admission fees at those stadiums and not pool-play sites. The fees will range from $5 to $10. Masks are recommended for all fans, and social distancing will be enforced.
“The high school coaches throughout the state were incredible from High Point all the way down to Pennsville, they all helped out in some way, shape or form,” Kroeger said.
“It’s getting to that point where this is a reality.”
Bristol said his team, and other programs, may not have all their players due to other commitments, such as college or travel baseball.
Ocean City will not have senior pitcher Jake McKenna because he recently signed a minor-league contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. But McKenna will be cheering on his teammates from the dugout, said Bristol.
Mainland will not have junior pitcher and University of Florida commit Chase Petty, according to the selection show Saturday.
“I’m sure we are in the same boat as a lot of other teams,” Bristol said. “But if our guys are available, they’ll play. If not, we have plenty of guys in our program who can.
“It’s just unbelievable this came together and just honored to be a part of it and allowed to be playing some games in July. We are really looking forward to this. It’s really exciting to have it.”