LIVINGSTON, NJ — Members of the Livingston High School (LHS) baseball program who were denied their chance to play the 2020 spring season due to the statewide coronavirus shutdown of schools will get their chance to play as a team in July.
The Last Dance Baseball Tournament will involve 222 teams from all over New Jersey—including Livingston—participating in a three-week competition that will begin with three days of pool play followed by two weeks' worth of bracket-style playoffs. Every team will be guaranteed at least three games during the pool play portion, which would begin on July 14.
Livingston will serve as a host site for the pool play games, although the games will be played at the Brendan Tevlin Fields on Okner Parkway rather than the team's normal spring home field at the Memorial Oval.
According to LHS head baseball coach Mickey Ennis, all eight seniors from the spring roster will get their opportunity to represent the program again on the field by participating in the Last Dance.
The senior players—now LHS graduates as of Thursday—include Anthony Lopa, Ryan Lafferty, Will Egner, Josh Greenberg, Michael Kravitz, Quin Kressler, James Cooney and Ernie Wilson.
"I honestly didn't think they’d be able to pull it off," Ennis said of his initial reaction to the idea of the tournament when it was first hatched in May. "I was cautiously optimistic, but I didn't want to get too excited. When the state started opening up as each day passed, I think my optimism grew almost on a daily basis as the information came out."
Ennis, who was hopeful for the possibility of even a 10-team tournament, said he never would have envisioned the 222-team statewide tournament until JT Kroeger, one of the event organizers, began posting about the tournament on Twitter—triggering a flood of phone calls from his players.
"I was getting calls from the kids, and I asked, 'Is this something we want to apply for?'" he said. "I did take a survey of the eight seniors asking how many would be interested in this tournament. They came back and said all eight would love to do this. After that, there was no stopping us."
As something that is taking place out of season, the tournament is not an NJSIAA event. Instead, the tournament is being organized by Mike Murray Jr., the head baseball coach at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, with help from Millburn coach Brian Chapman and Kroeger, an area baseball scout.
The teams will play under National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rules.
According to the NJSIAA calendar of when spring ends and summer begins, any coaches affiliated with their spring high school programs will not be allowed to work with their teams prior to July 13.
Although some head coaches are turning the reins over to someone else unaffiliated with their high school programs to run the teams during the tournament, Ennis plans to coach his team as soon as the games begin.
In the meantime, Livingston currently has Scott Parsons—who played for Livingston in the late 70s and is in the University of Miami’s Hall of Fame—taking the lead for LHS alongside Class of 1980 alumnus Marty Writt, who was also a standout player for Livingston. According to Ennis, the parents association is also heavily involved.
Additionally, because this is a summer event not sanctioned by the NJSIAA, teams are prohibited from wearing the uniforms they would typically wear during the school season.
In fact, the LHS entry will not go by the customary name of Livingston Lancers and has opted instead to enter the tournament as "Team Jake" in tribute to the late Jake Kestler, who lost his battle with cancer in April 2019 at age 14. Prior to Kestler's death, Livingston's baseball community—both at the high school and the Livingston Little League—played a major role in keeping the teen's spirits high and raising funds for the "Knock Cancer Out of the Park" pediatric cancer initiative established in his honor.
"Jake was with our kids as a team manager, and he was a big part of our county championship in 2018," said Ennis. "Jake was a tremendous motivation for the kids on that team. A lot of these seniors were involved with him."
CLICK HERE to read about how Keslter became an honorary captain for the LHS varsity team.
When the tournament begins, Livingston will be in a pool-play region with Millburn, Hanover Park and Maplewood-South Orange.
According to a series of reopening directives from Gov. Phil Murphy, baseball practices were allowed to begin on June 22, and games will be permitted beginning on July 6.
The maximum size of outdoor gatherings was increased from 100 to 250 people on June 22 and is slated to expand to 500 people after July 3.
Ennis noted that the attraction of playing night games at Okner has been enhanced by the loosening of the restrictions on outdoor crowds.
"It will be a celebration for the seniors from every team with lights, music and photographers," the coach said. "It should be a better setting this way, with 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. games. No matter how we do in the tournament, just playing at least three games and being back on the field will be a tremendous accomplishment."
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