BRIDGEWATER, NJ – All of us in New Jersey needed The Last Dance.

What was done across a multitude of diamonds and mounds in the Garden State about four months after school buildings were closed for in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 year was absolutely remarkable.

On July 14, high school baseball players and coaches in New Jersey finally began what ended up being a highly-anticipated 222-team baseball tournament: The Last Dance. The majority of players on each team consist of recently-graduated high school seniors, whose 2020 baseball seasons were unfortunately and sadly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Players and coaches from four of these schools: Bridgewater-Raritan (BR Panthers), Somerville (Branchburg Bulldogs), Immaculata (Spartans) and Bernards (Bernards), began their pool play games at Bridgewater’s Prince Rodgers Field and in the North Region 8 pool with contests as follows: Bridgewater-Raritan vs. Somerville, and Immaculata vs. Bernards.

The wait was certainly worth it.

In a thrilling first game that may be very difficult to top, Bridgewater-Raritan (1-0) and Somerville (0-1) were both scoreless heading into the 10th inning, but back-to-back RBIs by Anthony Scarlata and Aiden Schweizer, with one out in the top of the frame, broke the scoreless tie and put the Panthers up for good. Justin Sinibaldi then closed it out on the mound in the bottom of the inning for Bridgewater-Raritan, as he secured three strikeouts and the save in a 2-0 victory over Somerville.

In the second game, Immaculata (1-0) jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Bernards (0-1) and never looked back. While three runs each were scored in both the first and fourth innings by the Spartans and Bernards settled in after a rough start, they ultimately came up short on a few key scoring opportunities down the stretch. After allowing one run in the bottom of the first inning, Immaculata starting pitcher Adian Rumain kept Bernards off of the scoreboard for the remaining four innings of his start. The offense continued to extend the lead for the Spartans as Bernards did not score the rest of the way, and Immaculata left Prince Rodgers Field with an 8-1 victory.

THE LAST DANCE TOURNAMENT FORMAT + SCHEDULE:

This tournament is not sanctioned by the NJSIAA, the governing body of high school sports in New Jersey. It is instead run by the USSSA (United States Specialty Sports Association).

The Last Dance tournament format is different from the typical single-elimination bracket NJSIAA postseason play, mainly due to the tournament opening up with pool play explained below. (Hopefully this clears up any confusion; if you are already familiar with the format, you may skip down to the recaps.)

Dates for the Last Dance are July 14-31, 2020, as follows.

POOL PLAY (7/14-7/16): Pools are set up in either the North Region (“North”) or South Region (“South”) of NJ. In a typical pool play setting, all teams in a pool of four are guaranteed exactly three games, one against each of their three opponents. The team that finishes with the best record (usually with either a 3-0, or a 2-1 record with tiebreakers) after what ends up being six total games within the entire pool will “win” their pool. The final placement of teams will be based on record, and exact placements of top teams who finish with the best records (which is possible in a pool of four) would be decided by tiebreakers.

In the Last Dance, the teams with the best record in each pool as defined above will “win” their pool with tiebreakers used if necessary and advance to the Sweet 16 below. The teams with the lower records in each pool and/or lower tiebreakers would be eliminated from the tournament.

NORTH/SOUTH SWEET 16 (7/21): 16 teams with undefeated 3-0 records or 2-1 records with a winning tiebreaker in each pool will meet in one single-elimination game. For example, the winner of the Bridgewater pool (North Region 8) will face the winner of the North Region 9 pool. The winner of this game will advance to the Elite Eight.

NORTH/SOUTH ELITE EIGHT (7/22): The remaining eight “North” and eight “South” teams will meet in a single-elimination game. For example, the winner of North Region 8/9 above will face the winner of North 1/16. The winner of each of these games will advance to the Final Four.

NORTH/SOUTH FINAL FOUR (7/28): The remaining four “North” and four “South” teams will meet in a single-elimination game. For example, the winner of North Region 1/8/9/16 above will face the winner of North 4/5/12/13. The winner of each of these games will advance to the North or South Region Final.

NORTH/SOUTH REGION FINAL (7/29): The two remaining teams in each region will meet in a single-elimination game. The winner will advance to the championship game.

OVERALL CHAMPIONSHIP (7/31): North Champion vs. South Champion. Winner is the overall champion.

GAME 1: Bridgewater-Raritan (AWAY) vs. Somerville (HOME)
FINAL/10: Bridgewater-Raritan 2, Somerville 0

It was only fitting that the first high school sporting contest in Bridgewater in over four months needed extra innings in what ended up being a pitcher’s duel and defensive showcase.

And this one was certainly a classic.

Branchburg Bulldogs (Somerville) starting pitcher Gavin Stellpflug, who struck out nine BR Panthers (Bridgewater-Raritan) batters in the contest, got off to an incredible start out of the gate. He struck out seven of the first 11 BR Panthers (Bridgewater-Raritan) batters he faced and only allowed one walk in what ended up being a no-hitter through 3 2/3 innings pitched. Bridgewater-Raritan’s Jacob Olsen then broke up the no-hitter with the Panthers’ first hit of the tournament: a two-out single in the top of the 4th inning, but the Panthers came up empty in the inning.
Stellpflug then struck out what ended up being his final two batters in the 5th inning while allowing a double to Bridgewater-Raritan’s Jake Hendershot in between, and he finished his day allowing two hits, one walk, and no runs while striking out nine batters.

Despite the success of Stellpflug on the mound for Somerville, the hometown Panthers quietly put on a defensive clinic of their own.

Bridgewater-Raritan starting pitcher Jonathan Travisano struck out two of the first four Bulldogs batters he faced, and did not allow a hit until the game’s first hit by Somerville’s Patrick Lawson with one out in the bottom of the 3rd inning. While Tim Ciempola drew a walk and Matt Wright hit an infield single to load the bases for Somerville afterwards, a fly out to first and Travisano’s third strikeout ended the inning and kept the game scoreless at 0-0.

Travisano pitched for five innings in his start for Bridgewater-Raritan like Stellpflug for Somerville. The Panthers’ defense came up with a double-play in the 4th inning after putting the leadoff Bulldogs hitter on base, and Somerville came up empty in the frame despite another hit after that. Travisano and the Panthers defense then retired Somerville in order in the 5th inning with a strikeout in between to close out his start consisting of three hits, one walk, no runs allowed, and three strikeouts to keep the game in a scoreless 0-0 tie through five innings.

Tim Pitucco then took the mound in relief of Stellpflug for Somerville, and quickly retired the Panthers in order in the top of the 6th. Similarly, Matt Smoke, who was already batting second in the lineup for Bridgewater-Raritan, took the mound in relief of Travisano. He struck out two Bulldogs batters and only allowed a hit in the inning, and Somerville stranded a runner on second to keep the game scoreless after six innings. In the top of the 7th, while Pitucco retired his first two batters faced and allowed a pair of walks, his second strikeout of the game kept the Panthers off the scoreboard.

With the game 0-0 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning, one run in the inning was all Somerville needed for the win. And they were 90 feet away from doing just that.

Smoke had other ideas for Bridgewater-Raritan, though.

After striking out the first batter he faced in the top of the frame, back-to-back singles and a walk for Somerville loaded the bases with one out and put the winning run on third. But Smoke kept Bridgewater-Raritan alive with a pair of clutch strikeouts to get out of the jam unscathed in front of what was an extremely loud and excited crowd full of Bridgewater-Raritan faithful.

And just like that, there were extra innings at Prince Rodgers Field.

Pitucco and Smoke both had 1-2-3 innings in the 8th frame, and both teams went scoreless in the 9th inning as well despite Bridgewater-Raritan having the only runner in scoring position in extra innings up to this point.

This was not the case in the 10th inning, though, as the hometown Panthers finally broke through.

Bridgewater-Raritan’s Daniel Ward hit a single into right with one out in the top of the 10th frame, and Evan Goldberg pinch-ran for Ward, stole second, and the rest will be remembered in Bridgewater for a very long time. Anthony Scarlata hit what ended up being the go-ahead RBI single to score Goldberg, and Aiden Schweizer extended Bridgewater-Raritan’s lead to 2-0 on the very next at-bat with an RBI single of his own. While the Panthers came up empty after that, Justin Sinibaldi took the mound for the Panthers in the bottom of the 10th to try and close out the game from there.

In his four at bats, Sinibaldi allowed one walk, but struck out the remaining three Somerville batters to secure the save and a 2-0 Bridgewater-Raritan victory.

GAME 2: Immaculata (AWAY) vs. Bernards (HOME)
FINAL: Immaculata 8, Bernards 1

It only took six at bats in the second game of the day to exceed the run total in the first game, and only one at bat for the contest’s first hit.
Immaculata’s Chris Markovich got the Spartans going with a quick single to lead off and open the contest against Bernards. RBIs each by Ryan Giacobello, Derek Von Horn, and Ryan Enright a short time later over a span of four at bats quickly put the Spartans up 3-0. While they ultimately got stranded, Immaculata also managed to put another pair of runners on first and second in the top of the 1st inning alone.

This game appeared to be heading in the direction of a shootout after Andrew Holmes drew a walk for Bernards with two outs in the bottom of the 1st. A single by Colin Walsh and then an RBI single by Tom Orlic, who also started on the mound for Bernards, then cut Immaculata’s lead to 3-1 with an RBI single before the inning came to an end for what ended up being Bernards’ only run of the contest.

Immaculata then extended its lead to 5-1 with one run each in the 2nd and 3rd innings, while Bernards came up empty in these frames: both with runners on second and in scoring position. While Orlic retired the first two Spartans batters he faced in the 4th inning, Immaculata exploded with two outs in the frame. A high fly ball dropped into left for a double by Markovitch, and Ryan Kabus followed that up with an infield single. An RBI single by Giacobello in the next at bat and a two-out, two-run, bases-clearing double by Von Horn extended the Spartans’ lead to 8-1.

Bernards stranded a pair of runners on first and second in the bottom of 4th inning, and Connor Goodman came in at relief pitcher from the 5th inning onward. He and the Bernards defense only allowed one hit and two baserunners the rest of the way: a one-out triple in the top of the 7th by Giacobello to put the Spartans’ extra hitter at 3-for-3 with three RBIs and a home run away from the cycle.

Despite further opportunities to cut into Immaculata’s lead, the Spartans denied Bernards a steal of home in the bottom of the 5th inning. They also got out of the bottom of the 6th inning with the bases loaded and one out for Bernards.

Immaculata closed it out from there with an 8-1 victory.

Mike Allegra pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Spartans starting pitcher Aidan Rumain, who got the win after only allowing one first-inning run, five hits, and three walks while striking out three batters in five innings pitched.

STANDINGS:
The North Region 8 (Bridgewater) pool standing are as follows after the above two games:
T1. Immaculata (1-0)
T1. Bridgewater-Raritan (1-0)
T2. Somerville (0-1)

T2. Bernards (0-1)

While all teams are still mathematically alive to win the pool and are at least guaranteed three pool play games, a second loss by Somerville or Bernards on Day 2 (July 15th) to drop them to 0-2 and mathematically eliminate them from winning it. This is because Immaculata and Bridgewater-Raritan will play each other in the second game on Day 2 (7/15); the winner of this game would move to 2-0 and would make it mathematically impossible for a team from 0-2 to catch a 2-0 team with only a third game remaining for each team.

Simply put, Bridgewater-Raritan’s 2-0 win over Somerville, and Immaculata’s 8-1victory over Bernards, sets the following stage for Day 2.

NEXT UP & WHAT’S AT STAKE:

Two more games as follows will take place at Prince Rodgers Field at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. July 15.

Per the Last Dance tournament fan policies: “Fans are encouraged to wear masks, to bring their own chairs, and to socially distance from all non-family members. Fans are not permitted in the areas directly behind home plate or directly next to the dugouts. Fans should stay in their cars until fifteen (15) minutes prior to the start of a contest. If a fan returns a foul ball, please return it to the dugout so it can be sanitized before return to play.”

GAME 1 (10 a.m.): Somerville (0-1) vs. Bernards (0-1). This will effectively be an elimination game as both teams will enter their matchup with one loss each. While the loser will mathematically be unable to win the pool, the winner would head into the third and final day with a 1-1 record and would mathematically have a chance to win the pool if tiebreakers come into play (i.e. “win + help” scenario). However, for this reason the winning team in Game 1 would need help to win the pool due to the matchup in Game 2 below.

GAME 2 (1 p.m.): Immaculata (1-0) vs. Bridgewater-Raritan (1-0). The winner of this game will move to 2-0 and would control its destiny to win the pool heading into the third and final day. The loser would drop to 1-1, but would head into the third and final day with a similar “win + help” scenario to win the pool. In other words, given both the Spartans and Panthers control their destinies heading into Day 2, a lot is at stake in this second game for both teams.

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