BERNARDSVILLE, NJ — Members of the Bernards 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.
The Last Dance Baseball Tournament would involve well over 200 teams--including Bernards--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.
Bernards had 12 senior baseball players on the spring roster who would get their opportunity to represent the Mountaineers again on the field. According to Bernards varsity baseball coach Jeff Falzarano, about nine or 10 of those seniors will actually participate in the Last Dance.
"Returning to baseball provides a little bit of normalcy," Falzarano said. "For these kids this is a release. The banter, having a good time with each other, they miss all that stuff. This (shutdown) was a really tough thing for people mentally."
As something that is taking place out of season, the tournament is not an NJSIAA event. It is being organized by Mike Murray Jr., the head baseball coach at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, with help from Millburn coach Brian Chapman and an area baseball scout, J.T. Kroeger. It 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.
No coaches affiliated with their spring high school programs will be allowed to work with their teams prior to July 13, according to the NJSIAA calendar of when spring ends and summer begins, and some head coaches will be turning the reins over to someone else unaffiliated with their high school programs to run the teams during the tournament. Falzarano, however, will coach his team when the games begin.
"We can coach our kids. That's a huge hurdle. If they (the NJSIAA) said no, essentially I couldn't coach them," Falzarano said. "As a coach I want to be there with them. This is the last time playing for many of these kids. It's invaluable in that respect. A good and positive experience--that is my goal. Our program kids, even the younger kids, want to get an opportunity to share this with their seniors."
Because this is a summer event not sanctioned by the NJSIAA, teams are prohibited from wearing the uniforms they'd wear during the school season. Falzarano said he is insuring himself and his team through a non-profit organization he uses for any out-of-season baseball activity. Until July 13, Bernards baseball practices will be in the hands of coaches other than Falzarano.
"I have one of the fathers of one of the seniors, someone who had coached them through 12U," Falzarano said. "He is involved, and I have another local parent I asked to help out. One of my former players volunteered to help out, too. They practiced for the first time last night. It's just about having fun, and I heard the practice was lively and upbeat."
The 12 members of the Class of 2020 Bernards baseball program are: Max Cooper (OF/P), Ryan Falduto (IF/P), Noah Gagnon (IF), Eddy Gambelli (OF), Connor Goodman (P/OF), David Iaione (OF/P), James Kessler (C), Tom Orlic (P/OF), Tyler Prusina (OF), Chris Reyda (IF), Nate Scalia (C) and Colin Walsh (OF).
Falzarano, who called the shutdown and the process of trying to restart baseball in the summer "a surreal experience," is looking forward to the tournament with a mix of eagerness and anxiety.
"I am looking forward to this," he said. "I have a little bit of nervous anticipation, anxiety about getting the kids going again and their involvement. The seniors are done, and it's kind of hard to say to them 'let’s go work out.' The last baseball these kids played was March 15 in Florida, where we went on a pre-season trip. We may have been the last team in New Jersey to play any baseball. We had extra practices, we scrimmaged over that weekend. We had seven scrimmages before we came back. They got to play."
"I felt going into the spring season that we had so much experience. Some of those kids had played since they were sophomores. I started to see some things develop in Florida and my confidence rose. I felt pretty good about the season coming up in the spring. I felt that we were gelling and could make a run."
Now Bernards, which could possibly open the pool play portion of the Last Dance with games at PNC Park in Bridgewater, has a chance to make a summer run.
"I am hoping they realize that preparation is important," Falzarano said of his team. "They need to be well conditioned to play three games in three days."