MONTVILLE, NJ - The opportunity that seemed like it might never come is now on the horizon for the Montville baseball team.
After an unprecedented few months which saw the spring high school sports season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was believed that Montville's 12 senior baseball players had played their final games and would not get to play with their teammates again.
But last month, with New Jersey's stay-at-home order being lifted along with restrictions on organized sports, an idea was born: a final tournament for seniors that missed out on this season, giving them one last chance to take the field this summer before going off to college.
The tournament, which has come to be known as the "Last Dance World Series" will kick off on Tuesday. Montville will be one of over 200-plus teams in the state that have entered and will get to play.
“Oh my God, after what the seniors and all these guys have gone through, the fact that we get a chance to play is outstanding," coach Ian Schwindel said. "The doom-and-gloom of never getting to play again for a lot of these guys, at least we’ll get some kind of closure for them. The guys that are continuing to play will get one more chance to play with their friends, which is probably as important of a thing.”
Montville's roster, which consists of 12 seniors, to go along with nine underclassmen, will get at least three games together in the tournament's pool play round beginning on Tuesday.
“It was interesting at first because I didn’t know where their heads were at," Schwindel said of first learning about the tournament last month. "I had spoken to them a bunch…were kids over it, did they not want to play? And I didn’t want to go into this thing with just a handful of seniors. I wanted all of them. It took some thinking on their end. I think a lot of them spoke with each other, and a couple of guys were definitely on board, and they got the whole band together. So we’ve got everybody. Every senior on our roster is going to play."
The way the tournament is set up, each team is placed into a region where it is guaranteed three games of pool play, which will take place on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, consecutively. Montville is in the North, 3 region, where it will take on DenRock (Morris Knolls) on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Delbarton's Fleury Field in Morris Township. Other teams in the region include Tidal Wave (Delbarton), Morris County Queensmen (Morris Catholic), Parsippany Red Hawks, DiMaggio Baseball (Boonton), Parsippany Hills Vikings, and Mountain Lakes.
Winners of the first day's games will face off on the second day, with the losing teams facing off as well. The two remaining unbeaten teams will face off on Thursday for the opportunity to advance to the single-elimination portion of the tournament, which will commence the following week.
The tournament's format also allows for an expanded batting order, with up to 10-11 players being allowed to bat in pool play as opposed to nine. Schwindel plans to utilize that to get the seniors as much playing time as possible.
It will be a change of pace from the usual win-at-all-costs mentality that would normally be seen during a regular season.
“The emphasis is going to be on getting these guys to play. If we’re lucky enough to advance, we’re lucky enough to advance," Schwindel said. "But for the three games, there’s 10 lineup spots, and we’re allowed to defensively substitute. We have 12 seniors, so these guys are going to play, and they’re going to roll, unless they absolutely can’t. From there, we’ll try to win the games. That’s going to be a discussion point too on Monday, it’s going to be interesting."
Schwindel added with a laugh, "It’s going to be hesitant for me to call a bunt sign for one of these guys in one of their last at-bats as a baseball player, you know what I mean? That’s something that we’re going to talk about in terms of how far we want to go with it. And hey, if we can bang the ball around and score a bunch of runs and win that way, that makes it easier.”
Seniors such as Seton Hall-bound shortstop Zach Sylvester, infielder/pitcher Mike Sesko, catcher C.J. Arena and first baseman Kristof Behrens will be counted on to lead the way.
Pitching depth will also be a premium in this tournament, with games on three consecutive days. Sesko is the squad's ace, with seniors Joe Nuzzi, Zach Kirschner, Julian Calle, Aidan Bush expected to contribute on the mound. Outside of them, look for juniors Johnny Jarvie and Alex Simon, along with sophomore Ryan Nieskens and freshman Ian Kaiser to eat up some innings as well.
Since the focus will be heavily on the seniors for their final games, the underclassmen on the roster decided to take part knowing full well that they may not even get much of an opportunity to play.
"I opened it up to the junior class because it’s an important year for them as well, that a lot of them missed," Schwindel said. "I opened it up for any one of them that wanted to play. Not all of them jumped out, but a bunch did, and then I just filled it out with some younger guys. Every younger guy I asked, it was a no-brainer. They were in. And it was with the full understanding that they might not play an inning, which was pretty cool to see. They just want to be there for the older guys during this time and do whatever they can, and be around the game and be around their team.”
As exciting as the prospect of the tournament is, it does come with its own set of challenges. For one, Montville will have only one official practice on Monday prior to Tuesday's first game, as an NJSIAA no-contact rule prohibits coaches from holding any workouts with their teams until Monday, meaning any practices prior to Monday would have to be held independently in Schwindel's absence.
It's the first time any of these players have likely done any organized baseball activities since practice was halted in early March, meaning rust could be a factor next week.
“The combination of rust and nerves, and guys just trying to bring it is all going to factor in," Schwindel said. "There’s going to be a lot of walks, some people might get (hit), but there’s going to be rust. At the plate, you haven’t seen live pitching since when? Now you’re going to go up against Delbarton, potentially, and whoever they’re throwing is probably still going to be bringing it in the mid-80’s. We’re just going to go out there and let it fly. That’s all we can do. We’ll make corrections when we need to and just try to have as much fun as possible. Three days, at the least, and that’s all these guys have and we’ll make the most of it.”
Aside from the play on the field, just arriving at the site of the game will be different for players and coaches. Temperatures will be taken and anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or higher is required to be sent home. While players will not be required to wear masks on the field, they will be required to do so in the dugout along with practicing social distancing.
Parents and fans are not to arrive any earlier than 10-15 minutes before first pitch, and can only view the game from down the left and right field lines. They will not be allowed to congregate behind the backstop or dugout areas, and social distancing is expected to be enforced by the site manager.
It will be a very different atmosphere as opposed to what the players are used to. But most importantly, they'll be out on the field playing baseball, something that seemed would not happen just two months ago.
“I’m sure it’ll be different. But the fact that we’ll be out there together, playing baseball, we’ll forget about it pretty quickly," Schwindel said. "The kids will have to wear the stuff coming in, the coaches will be wearing masks pretty much the whole time, but the kids won’t have to wear them unless they want to while they’re playing. Fortunately we’re going to Delbarton which is a really nice, really big dugout, so there’s plenty of space for them to hang out and it’s a beautiful field. So we’ll make the most of it.”
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