Even though the Last Dance Tournament is not yet official, the statewide event would give high school baseball players and coaches the opportunity they’ve craved for since last year — the freedom to compete on the diamond.
The tournament continues to take significant steps toward becoming a reality, but there are still some obstacles.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said Friday teams can begin summer workouts on or around July 13. Earlier this month, Last Dance organizers had announced tentative dates and the tournament’s format, but the NJSIAA’s announcement will force a later start.
More guidance on youth sports competitions is expected from the state Department of Health on June 22.
While the tournament will feature the teams and players whose 2020 seasons were canceled due to the pandemic, it would not be an official high school competition or an NJSIAA tournament. The NJSIAA oversees most high school sports in the state.
“The NJSIAA is not a part of us, but coaches need to coach,” said John Kroeger, who along with St. Joseph (Metuchen) athletic director and coach Mike Murray and Millburn coach Brian Chapman organized the Last Dance.
The tournament got a boost when Gov. Phil Murphy said recently that outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people will be permitted as of July 6.
More than 200 teams signed up for the tournament, including more than 90 from South Jersey. Some already have backed out, and more shuffling is expected before the pairings and locations are announced Thursday.
Participants have until Wednesday, when organizers will meet to discuss final plans, to meet entry requirements. More teams could be added, Kroeger said.
“It is really a good thing to give the seniors one more chance, and the underclassmen a chance to play with them,” said Kroeger, who is also a scout for the Cincinnati Reds and a player developer at Diamond Nation in Hunterdon County. “We aren’t going to deny anyone. It’s for the seniors.”
ACIT, Barnegat, Buena Regional, Cedar Creek, Holy Spirit, Ocean City, Pinelands Regional, St. Augustine Prep, Vineland and St. Joseph are the local teams that signed up for the Last Dance Tournament.
Each team would begin with three pool play games July 14-16. Thirty-two sites statewide would be used, with six teams at each site based on location to eliminate high-mileage trips.
The teams that advance would be separated into two brackets, North and South Jersey. Each team would then play single-elimination games. There would be a North and South final, and a North vs. South championship.
“I think it’s a great idea,” ACIT coach Sean Coyle said. “As soon as (my team) heard about this, they were all onboard. Any chance they can get to play together, we are going to take. We are just excited.”
Coyle described his team as “close-knit” and said the players were looking to grow this spring, which never happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the rest of the state’s high school winter sports season was canceled. The entire spring sports season was canceled in May.
“They are looking for anything right now, and so am I,” Coyle said. “And I don’t want my seniors to leave high school without touching the field. … If they can get back on the field together for at least one more game, it’ll be great for everybody.”
Murphy announced May 29 that noncontact sports, such as baseball, can resume June 22 with proper safeguards. On Tuesday, Murphy also increased the outdoor gathering limit from 50 to 100.
Cedar Creek senior pitcher Steven Kaenzig is optimistic about the Last Dance tournament, especially since this spring was not how the Mullica Township resident had envisioned his last season in high school.
“If we schedule the games right and have the right amount of people there, I think it could work,” said Kaenzig, who is committed to NCAA Division I Hofstra University.
“We are all excited to go out with everybody, and have fun and play one more time with our best friends.”
Vineland coach John Malatesta said many players, including some of his, play travel baseball, which could conflict with Last Dance tournament dates. Getting enough pitchers also could be an issue, he said.
But the Fighting Clan really wants to participate in the “Last Dance.”
“I just want to do it for the fun factors of getting together with the kids,” Malatesta said. “There are positives, but there are hurdles to go over before this can happen. If we get the clearance, we would like to do it and the kids seem really excited.
“Hopefully it happens. It could be a lot of fun. I like the format.”
The NJSIAA recently made two COVID-19 task forces aimed to create a safe return to high school sports. This tournament could be a roadmap, said Kroeger, one of the tournament organizers.
“It can really set a precedent for a lot of the other sports,” Kroeger said, “and if it goes well, I believe it will really help make fall sports in high school come back at full strength.”