MILLBURN, NJ — Members of the Millburn High School baseball program who were denied their chance to play the 2020 spring season due to the statewide coronavirus shutdown of schools may get their chance to play as a team in July.
Millburn varsity baseball coach Brian Chapman has been integral in helping to organize The Last Dance Baseball Tournament, which would involve well over 200 teams--including Millburn--from all over New Jersey participating in a three-week competition that would begin with three days of pool play followed by two weeks' worth of bracket-style playoffs. Every team would be guaranteed at least three games during the pool play portion, which would begin July 14.
The tournament is the brainchild of Mike Murray Jr., the athletic director and head baseball coach at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen. The late Mike Murray Sr. was a friend and mentor of Chapman, who has been one of Murray Jr.'s right-hand men in getting this summer extravaganza off the ground as New Jersey continues to reopen in stages after the pandemic shutdown that began in March, wiping out all spring high school sports seasons in its wake.
"Back in March, when the seasons were first suspended, Murray said, 'This is what I'm thinking if we can return in the summer'," Chapman said.
While all varsity baseball players who lost out on a chance to play in the spring would benefit from a return to the field in July, the tournament has been set up especially for the benefit of Class of 2020 athletes who were deprived of their senior high school baseball seasons but who would now get a final chance--or, at minimum, three final chances--to be back on the field with their teammates.
For Millburn, that means seniors Ben Sinins, Ben Chrzanowski, Zach Dorfschneider, Matt Chan, Jake Delidow, Mike Cioffi, Jason Berg and Jared Lugo would have a chance to reunite on the diamond after their graduation and after losing the spring to the pandemic.
Chapman has been in charge of scheduling matchups and assigning fields. A good portion of the tournament will be played away from school fields, many of which are at the mercy of their towns' boards of education and some of which have not been reopened yet. This has led to more private fields, town fields and even minor league stadiums being designated as sites for the Last Dance games.
"Scholastic involvement was the hurdle, and the NJSIAA has been slow to return. We knew, though, that the club team situation would work itself out more quickly," Chapman said.
Club team baseball, which has been cleared to return to playing regular games on July 6, generally takes place on weekends, so the Last Dance Tournament is scheduled for weekdays. However, because the NJSIAA is not allowing high school coaches to work with their teams prior to July 12, any practices or preparation leading up to the Last Dance games will be in the hands of appointed coaches who are not directly involved with the high school programs.
Chapman said he may decide to hand the reins to former Millburn players to serve as coaches even after the July 12 deadline.
"I might let those guys coach the team and I'll just watch my guys from the stands as a fan," Chapman said. "I'm not sure yet."
Because this event is being treated as a summer tournament, the NJSIAA has no direct involvement in it, and teams are prohibited from wearing uniforms they would wear during the school baseball season.
"Mike (Murray Jr.) is trying to be all-inclusive with the tournament," Chapman said. "He's even allowing co-ops. We've been trying to seed and match up the teams based on early pre-season rankings, and geography also had to play a role. In the pool play rounds, we're trying to avoid having any team travel more than 30 minutes for their games."
Participants are responsible for their own transportation to and from games. There will be no busing provided.
"It's definitely easier for parents when the games are more local," Chapman said.
The Last Dance 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 is slated to expand to 500 people by July 6.
Seedings, dates and locations are expected to be released by the end of this week. The tournament is scheduled to end July 30.