EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ — East Brunswick varsity baseball coach Chris Kenney admits he never expected it would actually happen, but members of the East Brunswick High School team who were denied a chance to play the 2020 spring season due to the statewide coronavirus shutdown of schools will get their chance to play as a team next week.

The Last Dance Baseball Tournament will involve 222 teams--including East Brunswick--from all over New Jersey 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 will begin next Tuesday.

East Brunswick had 12 senior baseball players on the spring roster. The Bears received the third seed in the Lincroft Regional Bracket, and will play Manasquan in the first pool-play game Tuesday, July 14 at Christian Brothers Academy at 5:30 p.m.

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Baseball players who just graduated from East Brunswick are D.J.McGuinness, Jay Bartus, Bryan Bellantoni, Noah Branco, Manny Branco, Brian Chan, Dan Conlon, Max Fallon, Joe Ramnarine, Carter Stawinski-Perez, Max Tischhauser and Ryan Turzani.

As something that is taking place out of season, the tournament is not an NJSIAA event. It was organized by Mike Murray Jr., the head baseball coach at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, with help from Millburn coach Brian Chapman and an area baseball scout, J.T. Kroeger. It is considered a high school summer tournament, not a club tournament, and teams will play under National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rules.

According to a series of reopening directives from Governor Phil Murphy, baseball practices were allowed to begin on June 22, and games will be permitted beginning July 6. On June 22, the maximum size of outdoor gatherings was increased from 100 to 250 people, and that figure expanded to 500 people this week--when Murphy also mandated outdoor face coverings "when social distancing is not possible." This directive is not expected to affect players on the field during the games.

"My first reaction when I heard about the idea of this tournament was shock," Kenney said. "I didn't know how they'd pull this off. It is such an undertaking to get this done. Mike Murray threw this out to GMC coaches first and when he got a good response, he kept it going. A lot of things had to go right in order for us to do this."

Kenney said his players were enthusiastic about the prospect of salvaging some games in the summer after a lost spring.

"The team's reaction was excitement," Kenney said. "In Zoom meetings we had with the team, there was pretty much unanimous feeling that they all wanted to do it."

Seven of East Brunswick's seniors are pitchers, including McGuinness and Bellantoni, each of whom are participating in the GMC All-Star Game this weekend at North Brunswick Community Park (Saturday, 5 p.m.).

"I am gonna try to get as many of them on the mound as I can," Kenney said of his seniors. "I am thinking about getting seniors in for the majority of the time."

The other two teams in the pool-play region with East Brunswick are top-seeded CBA and fourth-seeded Mater Dei Prep. Marty Kenney Jr., Chris' brother, is the head coach at CBA, succeeding his father, Marty Sr., who coached at the Lincroft school for 42 years.

Chris Kenney said that, after a hard-luck 2019 season that ended on an upswing with seven victories in the team's last 10 games, he was looking forward to a successful spring at East Brunswick.

"Our outlook in March, I was pretty excited. We had nine or 10 losses by one run or extra innings in 2019, and we had that whole group back," the East Brunswick coach said. "I was expecting somewhere around 17 to 18 wins heading into the tournaments. I had two top pitchers (McGuinness and Ballantoni) plus a couple other kids who would step into other slots in rotation. I think we've got a good shot next week. Any time it's a three-game series it’s anybody’s ballgame."

Kenney also expressed hope that this summer's tournament, which arose out of a desire to give something back to players--especially seniors--who lost a spring season they can never reclaim, can become a regular feature in future years.

"I wish they would do this all the time. It's a really cool event, and we have an opportunity now to continue something like this in the future," Kenney said. "I feel bad for the seniors who didn't get their senior year, but also for juniors. It’s the year you really get recruited for baseball. Any way we can get an extra pair of eyes on them would be good."