LIVINGSTON, NJ — Although Livingston’s “Team Jake” will not be moving on in the Last Dance Baseball Tournament this summer, the smiles were still evident even under the masks of players, coaches and fans over the last three days of pool play at Okner Parkway’s Tevlin Field.

The members of Team Jake, who were slated to play on the Livingston High School (LHS) varsity baseball team this spring, ended their three-game streak with back-to-back victories against Columbia, 10-0, and Glenn Ridge, 9-1, after already being bumped from the tournament in the first round with a 13-0 loss to Hanover Park.

For most of the players, however, this tournament was a fun summer bonus—a chance to get back on the field together after being quarantined for several months, a chance to honor the eight graduation seniors who lost the opportunity to compete in their last year of high school, and a chance to raise funds for a charity founded in memory of a 14-year-old fan who once served as their honorary team manager.

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“Every senior in the state, including ours, was heartbroken when the season was canceled,” said Livingston head coach Mickey Ennis, who never expected the summer tournament to expand beyond 12 teams and was pleasantly surprised when 222 teams throughout the state signed up. “We knew that we were going to be involved from the start, and I personally wanted to be involved to give the seniors one last crack at playing together again—not necessarily representing LHS in their jerseys, but representing Team Jake.”

Due to the rules of the tournament, which was not sanctioned by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), the players were not permitted to wear the uniforms they would typically wear during the school season. Instead, the LHS players opted to enter the tournament as “Team Jake” in honor of Jake Kestler, who first became involved with the LHS team during the 2018 season before losing his battle with cancer in April 2019.

“The next natural team name after Livingston Lancers was Team Jake,” said Ennis. “Jake was with all of these seniors when they were sophomores and won the championship in that magical run that our team had that year. They were very much involved with Jake that year—they were very much a part of his life and Jake played such a big role in our program. His memory lives on in our lives, and we did the best we could to represent him in this tournament.”

The recent graduates—including team captains Anthony Lopa, Will Egner and Ryan Lafferty as well as Josh Greenberg, Michael Kravitz, Quin Kressler, James Cooney and Ernie Wilson—were honored prior to the start of Wednesday night’s game against Columbia.

Also during Wednesday’s event, the team sold “Team Jake” bracelets in support of the Trial Blazers for Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in his memory the focuses on “improving treatment options and finding cures for pediatric cancers by funding innovative clinical trials as well as raising awareness regarding the limited treatment options available to pediatric cancer patients,” according to the website.

“The LHS baseball program [was] remarkably inspirational to Jake during the 2018 Championship season and has continued to be extremely supportive of our family and our foundation, Trial Blazers for Kids, since Jake’s passing,” said Josh Kestler, Jake’s father. “We are so honored that the team has chosen to honor Jake’s memory by entering the Last Dance tournament as Team Jake and helping to raise money for Trial Blazers for Kids.”

Josh added that his son, who “loved baseball, loved the town of Livingston and loved his time with the Lancers baseball team,” would be “so touched and proud that the team is keeping his memory alive.”

“I hope he’s been looking down, smiling and watching Team Jake play in his memory,” he said just prior to the final game on Thursday afternoon.

In addition to thanking Ennis and the current and former members of the LHS baseball team, Josh also recognized the many other community members who have been involved with the foundation over the last year.

“I want to thank Josh Greenberg and Maddie Arsht for designing and selling Team Jake bracelets for the past two years to raise money for Trial Blazers for Kids,” he said. “Others who have held fundraising events include Maxine Davner and Jordan Tave, who held a [cycling] event as part of his bar mitzvah project to raise money for our foundation.

“The Little League has also been amazingly supportive and has offered to continue our Knock Cancer Out of the Park program along with helping us hold other events. I can’t possibly express how grateful we are for the love and support we have received from our local community. I think it speaks to the impact that Jake had on so many people.”

Josh explained that several fundraising events were delayed in 2020 due to COVID-19, but that the Trial Blazers team is “starting to think about creative ways to fundraise in the current environment.”

Noting that he and his wife, Gallite, are extremely passionate about fighting for better treatment options for children with pediatric cancers, Josh said that the family has “very ambitious plans for growing the foundation over the next few years.”

“Most people are not aware that pediatric cancer research is extremely underfunded,” he said. “Only 4 percent of federal government cancer research goes to study pediatric cancers. As a result, there is a tremendous reliance on private funding from foundations like Trial Blazers for Kids.”

After his son’s life was extended through participation in an innovative clinical trial, Josh said he and those now involved in Trial Blazers were determined to make sure that “children like Jake have greater access to the most innovative treatments” and that society invests more money in seeking cures for pediatric cancers.

“Our ongoing efforts to help other children through Trial Blazers for Kids is one of the many ways that Jake’s memory will live on far into the future,” he said.

CLICK HERE to donate or to learn more about Trial Blazers for Kids. 

The Last Dance Baseball Tournament continues on July 21 with two weeks' worth of bracket-style playoffs. The tournament will commence on July 31 at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, where the teams still standing will face off for the Last Dance championship title.

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