Garrett Smith wanted to participate in the Last Dance Tournament.
But there was some miscommunication between his Egg Harbor Township High School baseball teammates. With travel ball and other summer plans, most assumed that others could not compete and backed out.
Smith was confused by those responses and, when the team had to confirm its entry, he reached out to his teammates to see what was going on.
The senior outfielder said the consensus was “if everyone else is in, then I’m in.”
“It’s basically for the seniors to play one last time for their hometown,” Smith said when asked why he pushed for EHT to be in the 222-team, statewide tournament.
“I didn’t do much. I just got everyone on the same page.”
EHT, like many programs, could not have any affiliation with the school. Also, under New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association guidelines, high school coaches cannot coach until Monday, so EHT coach Bryan Carmichael is not involved in the tournament.
But his players will have a familiar leader — Rodney Velardi.
Velardi is the head coach at Atlantic Cape Community College. He also coaches Triple Crown Baseball, a travel team and showcase team based in EHT.
“Probably about 80% or more on the team plays for me or have previously played for me,” said Velardi, who coached EHT from 2000-05 and entered the team as Triple Crown Baseball.
“Since travel baseball in the state was allowed to start practicing in June, it just made sense (to coach EHT) since the bulk of these kids are already on this team.”
The Last Dance opens with three pool-play games July 14-16. Sixty locations will be used statewide based on location, placing teams into 32 regions. Most regions will have two groups of four teams. The two winners play for the regional title.
EHT is in the only region in the state with a six-team field that features all Press-area teams at Ocean City High School.
The Raiders (Ocean City) earned the top seed. BPC Spartans (Holy Spirit) earned the second seed. EHT is No. 3, Mainland Regional is No. 4, Atlantic County RedHawks (ACIT) is No. 5 and the Millville Lightning is the sixth seed.
“I’m looking forward to playing for EHT and playing with the guys again one last time,” said Smith, 17, who will play baseball next spring at Rowan University and major in radio, television and film.
EHT features seniors and NCAA Division I commits Sean Duffy (High Point) and Bobby Baxter (Columbia). The team has other D-I recruits, such as junior Frank Wright (Wagner) and freshman Justin Sweeney (Rutgers).
In pool-play, EHT plays Mainland at 1 p.m. July 14, then Holy Spirit at 4 p.m. July 15 and finishes against Millville at 1 p.m. July 16.
“All the teams in our group have a lot of talented guys, and all know each other,” said Smith, who added that Velardi and Carmichael share similar philosophies and run practices the same, so the team will be ready to compete.
“We all know what to expect from each other, but I think we are going to do great. We have a lot of good chemistry, and a lot of the guys are good friends. Going into this we all have one goal — to win a state championship.”
Smith said normally there are multiple state champions (schools are broken down into enrollment groups), but this year, there will only be one state champion, which is added motivation.
“That’s a cool way to look at it,” Smith said.
EHT players had been training on their own the last few months. But being on the diamond again is a different feeling.
Along with Baxter, Duffy and Smith, EHT’s seniors are Cole Gordon, Jeremy Laboy, Ben Cericola and Will Kesnig.
“These kids, especially the seniors, had so much taken away from them besides baseball,” Velardi said. “Their traditional graduation and prom. So many things we all experienced, they got ripped from them. So to have this opportunity is an amazing thing.
“I think the energy is high. These kids are excited to play in this tournament and get back together. It’s great.”
John Kroeger, who along with St. Joseph (Metuchen) athletic director and coach Mike Murray and Millburn coach Brian Chapman organized the Last Dance, said last month the Ocean City region is “the strongest in the state.”
“I like our chances,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great group of highly-intelligent kids. They are good baseball kids with a ton of talent. It’s about getting them together and playing as a team.
“The teams that are in our pool-play are some of the strongest teams. ... I think you are going to see some great baseball.”
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. The main goal is to have seniors play as much as possible.
And if that’s just the three pool-play games, most coaches will be happy.
“I think it’s great the kids want to play together, and it’ll be very beneficial for the seniors to get on the field and represent their group,” said Carmichael, who, even though he cannot coach, supports his players.”
“I’m excited for them to have this opportunity to play together.”