LIVINGSTON, NJ — Playing in honor of Jake Kestler, a Livingston teen who lost his battle with cancer in April 2019 at age 14, the Livingston High School (LHS) varsity baseball team finally returned to the diamond on Tuesday for round one of the three-week Last Dance Baseball Tournament being held statewide.
The members of “Team Jake”—which was seeded second in its pool and includes eight recent Livingston graduates who would have otherwise lost the opportunity to play the sport together again as teammates—were enthusiastic about being back on the field despite their devastating 13-0 loss to No. 3 Hanover Park on Tuesday afternoon.
Livingston, which is hosting the pool-play rounds this week at the Tevlin Fields on Okner Parkway, will now take on the loser of Tuesday’s matchup between No. 1 Millburn and No. 4 Columbia at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
“I can’t even call it a disappointing day because we were back on the baseball field and the kids were playing baseball again, which was great to see,” said LHS head coach Mickey Ennis. “Right now we’re in bonus baseball territory—so we’re just playing the game, and that’s really exciting for us.
“I think the kids are enjoying it, the coaches are certainly enjoying it, and Tevlin Field has also never looked better than it did today, so it was a great tribute to him and to baseball…Hopefully we just knocked a lot of rust off and we’ll be able to bounce back tomorrow.”
More than 220 teams from across New Jersey have played their first of at least three games as part of the Last Dance Baseball Tournament, which was organized by a handful of high school coaches and scouts in accordance with a series of reopening directives from Gov. Phil Murphy that allowed sports practices to begin on June 22 and games to be played after July 6. Easing the capacity limit on outdoor gatherings earlier this month also allowed fans to support the teams so long as they practiced safe social distancing.
Ennis extended gratitude on behalf of the team to Scott Parsons and Marty Writt, two LHS Class of 1980 baseball alumni, for “taking time out of their busy schedules to work with our players leading up to this event.”
Parsons and Writt stepped up to coach Team Jake during practices after it was announced that coaches affiliated with spring high school sports programs were not allowed to work with their teams prior to July 13 due to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) calendar of when spring ends and summer begins.
As something that is taking place out of season, the Last Dance tournament is not an NJSIAA event, but is instead being played under National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHSA) rules.
This also meant that teams were prohibited from wearing the uniforms they would typically wear during the school season.
Rather than entering the tournament as the Livingston Lancers, the LHS players opted to go by "Team Jake" in tribute to the local teen who served as their honorary team manager prior to his untimely death. At the time, the varsity program played a major role in keeping the Kestler’s spirits high and raising funds for the "Knock Cancer Out of the Park" pediatric cancer initiative that was established in his honor.
Fans are encouraged to attend Wednesday night's game, where the team's recent LHS graduates will be honored and Team Jake bracelets will also be sold as a fundraiser for the Trial Blazers for Kids Foundation, a pediatric cancer organization founded in Kestler's memory.
Class of 2020 players include Anthony Lopa, Ryan Lafferty, Will Egner, Josh Greenberg, Michael Kravitz, Quin Kressler, James Cooney and Ernie Wilson.
Following this week of pool play, the remaining teams will participate in two weeks' worth of bracket-style playoffs beginning on July 21. 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.
To ensure the safety of all involved throughout the tournament, every coach, player and umpire will have his or her temperature taken upon arrival at the field before each game. Checks will be made by paid, certified athletic trainers. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be sent home.
Players and coaches will be required to wear masks in the dugout and to keep a social distance as much as possible. Players on the field, however, will not be required to wear masks.
CLICK HERE to read more about Livingston's tournament preparations.
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