BAYONNE and JERSEY CITY, NJ—While the coronavirus forced high school senior student athletes nationwide to forego their final spring seasons, Hudson County’s recently graduated baseball players will soon return to the diamond courtesy of a new tournament.
The Last Dance World Series is an independently organized competition that will feature over 200 teams from across New Jersey battling to become this year’s unofficial state champion. For many participants, the event—hosted at more than 50 local fields and commencing on July 14—will simultaneously be the first and final time they come together as they attempt to redeem a year marred by illness and unfulfilled potential.
“Just giving us a chance to go back out on the field and play with our high school teammates, it’s a dream,” Edgar Garcia, a senior left fielder from Dickinson High School in Jersey City, said. Garcia thought there was no hope for baseball to resume this year, or for his relatives to see him represent Dickinson again before he joins the College of St. Elizabeth’s roster next year.
Even though the cancellation did not affect Garcia’s Division III offer, many players needed this spring to gain attention from college scouts. Bayonne High School head coach Dave Hoffmann saw the lack of recruitment weigh heavily on his lineup.
“You could tell that…part of their frustration was those opportunities to showcase themselves in front of these college coaches wouldn’t be there for them,” Hoffmann said. He added that he contacted multiple universities prior to the season’s scheduled start, looking to give his student athletes a chance to prove their worth for scholarships.
Most programs only held a handful of practices before high school baseball fully ground to a halt. The closure of fitness centers imposed its own obstacles to staying in shape, with players relying on self-made routines to preserve their muscle memory and remain game ready.
“I’ve played baseball every spring my whole life,” said Julian Gonzalez, a three-year pitcher for Bayonne who will enter Keystone College’s rotation next year. “Then…you sit home all day doing nothing, it’s weird.”
For the last few weeks, Gonzalez and his teammates have been easing back into exercising outdoors on their own time. New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association rules also prohibit high school coaches from scheduling in-person meetings until the day before the tournament, since it has no affiliation with the regulatory body.
Still, there are ways to get around the system. Parents lead drills for Bayonne High as Hoffmann recovers from hip replacement surgery. Coaches Pat Laguerre of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City and Mario Santana of Dickinson let former athletes take command of workout sessions and host occasional video conferences.
All involved must take hygiene precautions to avoid causing a COVID-19 outbreak as well. The seniors are cognizant of the risks, especially with college housing and sports still in flux for this fall.
“At first I was kind of skeptical about it, to be honest, because keeping everybody safe and having a safe environment to play kind of seems like a challenge,” Matt Moreira, a senior pitcher for St. Peter’s Prep committed to the University of Scranton, said.
To mitigate those concerns, The Last Dance will abide by the state Department of Health’s guidance for sports activities. The six-page plan outlines protocols to ensure minimal germ transmission, including pregame temperature screenings, a ban on shared food and equipment, and readily available disinfectant products in every venue and dugout.
“We’re going to…[try] our best to keep following the social distancing guidelines, making sure that each kid has their own bats, has their own helmets, putting an emphasis on sanitizing them after use,” Laguerre said.
The tournament championship is on July 30 at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, a matchup between the best programs from North and South Jersey. The coaches and players are eager to revisit their rivalries, but they value the chance to contend again regardless of how deep a run they make.
“If this [had] been a normal year, of course we’d want to get back to the finals, have another opportunity with Bayonne,” Laguerre said, referencing his team’s narrow loss in the Hudson County title game last spring. “But at this juncture…what’s important is for us to get back to some sense of normalcy, and I think that trumps everything.”
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