ROBBINSVILLE and HAMILTON, NJ - This spring, Mercer County’s baseball fields laid silent as the coronavirus ravaged New Jersey. No home runs arcing over outfield fences, no leather gloves snapping shut to snag line drives, and no curveballs painting the far edge of the strike zone.
But over the last month, hundreds of high school teams have slowly returned to the diamond to prepare for The Last Dance World Series, a tournament organized outside the boundaries of state athletic regulations to crown an informal 2020 champion. For newly matriculated student athletes, the event represents an opportunity to reunite with their clubs for a final time in an attempt to salvage their lost seasons.
“You just kind of think about the things that you’re going to miss,” CJ Pittaro, a senior shortstop for Hamilton’s Steinert High School, said. “The camaraderie with the guys, competing against your rivals, and just getting out there and getting better every single day.”
Anticipating baseball would return this summer, Pittaro—who is committed to play for Vanderbilt University—built a batting cage in his backyard to stay game ready. The infielder also continued weightlifting in his basement to stave off muscle loss with gyms and practice centers closed.
Pittaro was not alone in using the increased downtime imposed by the lockdown to hone his craft. Chris Au, a recent graduate of Robbinsville High School, explained that he made his own training regimen to keep his arm sharp for both the tournament and his approaching collegiate career pitching for Rowan University.
“This is more of body weight stuff, a lot of push-ups, squats, pull-ups,” Au said. “So now I’m a little bit leaner, which I guess is actually better for me as a pitcher because I need to be flexible while also being athletic.”
Adding to the disappointment for some rosters was the pain of being unable to follow up on last season’s shortcomings. For Nick Diaz, a senior from Hamilton High School West who will pitch for Rowan College next year, that meant foregoing the chance to avenge his school’s loss in the 2019 Group 3 quarterfinals.
“The whole team has been playing together since we were probably 12 years old, and we thought this was the year,” Diaz said.
As the Hamilton West lineup plans for the tournament’s opening game on July 14, they must comply with strict measures to combat the risk of contracting COVID-19. Head coach Mike Moceri said he makes players take their temperatures before practices and stand apart in the dugout.
Other coaches have adopted similar procedures, understanding the irreparable damage that one infected athlete could do to the entire competition.
“I’ve just been stressing to the guys [to] keep washing your hands, keep distance from people,” Robbinsville head coach Mike Kinsella said. “If you can’t keep distance from people, keep a mask on, don’t share water bottles—whatever you’ve got to do.”
The Last Dance will also adhere to the state’s coronavirus guidelines for sporting events, which include improved sanitization of facilities, limits on handshakes and high-fives, and warnings against multiple players using the same helmets, bats, and mitts. Those old habits may be hard to break, but necessary.
“The other side of it is we don’t play if we can’t do these things,” Steinert head coach Brian Giallella said. “We want to play, everybody wants to play…[even though] it’s a little different, but you know what, when it comes down to it, it’s still baseball.”
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