Jersey City, NJ - It was a beautiful, sunny summer afternoon, the temperature sat at 83 degrees and baseball was back in the form of a statewide tournament of high school-aged players called ‘The Last Dance Tournament.’  In their opening game, the Wayne Valley PAL (WV-PAL) team faced the Gladiators, a team that was made up of mostly players from Passaic County Technical Institute, some from DePaul Catholic and the rest from various private schools in the area.  They played on an all-turf field in Jersey City under a blazing sun.

Although the WV-PAL team is made up of all players who have played for the Wayne Valley Boys Baseball team, they are not officially sanctioned by the high school or by the NJSIAA, so the Wayne PAL leant them their name and provided uniforms and equipment so the team could play in the tournament.

The team was coached by three fathers each of which have a son on the team, and because of the obscurity about sanctioning and schools, these coaches didn’t want to be named. We will call them Coach S, Coach M and Coach K. When they were asked about expectations for the game and the tournament, Coach S said: “None; except to have fun.”

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Coach M said: “We’d like to win; we’d like to advance, but for these kids, it’s really just one last hurrah before the seniors go off to college and for the other kids, its more preparation for next year.”

Last year, when all of these players were on the Wayne Valley Boys Baseball team, they won the Passaic County tournament and many of the players returned, so for them, the expectations were a little higher. “We were all really excited for the season,” said recent WV graduate and outfielder Matt Krefting. “We had a really good team and we all felt confident that we could repeat as county champs and make a run for the states. But it just wasn’t in the cards.”  It was a stoic statement said when the prospect of three more games with his team was just in front of him

Mom, Lorraine Saeger was on hand, very excited to watch her son Justin play again. “He was so devastated when the season was canceled,” she said. “It was something he has been working for since he was a freshman in high school. He played on varsity as a sophomore and as a junior, so his senior year, he couldn’t wait to just be a leader on the team.”  But the mom said she might have been more devastated than her son. “I couldn’t get over the fact that I wouldn’t be able to see him play his senior season,” she added.  There was nothing that was going to stop this mom from seeing her son play, even a last-minute schedule and venue change that moved the game from 10:00 a.m. in Secaucus to 3:00 p.m. in Jersey City.

Colin Thomson, who also just graduated from WV and played as the designated hitter in the first inning of the game, and then came in later as a relief pitcher, said before the start: “It was devastating when we heard the spring season was canceled.” But when the call came that they were looking for players to play in this tournament, there was no hesitation. “Sign me up,” he said.  Thomson was asked what was most important to him: the chance to play or to win. “I want to win,” he said. “I always want to win.” 

This was evident as Thomson’s first at-bat in the game came with the bases loaded in the first inning and he hit a ball so far that the center fielder of the other team had to turn and race after it.  It would’ve easily been a grand-slam home run if the field had a fence, instead, the talented and very fast center fielder from the Gladiators got under it and made the catch to end the inning. 

When Thomson came in to pitch in relief, he threw for three innings, facing 12 batters, giving up two hits and laying down three strikeouts.  His fastball was coming overhand and sidearm and giving opposing batters fits.

Dominic Castiglia was the starting pitcher for WV-PAL and struggled in the first inning, giving up three walks. However, a brilliant double-play and a fly-out ended this first inning. In his second inning, he gave up two more walks but also had two strikeouts.

The score was 1-0 for WV-PAL after the first inning with Brett Toback hitting a bases-loaded single to bring in the first run of the game.

The second inning ended with the same score, but in the third, the WV-PAL team opened it up. John Hacker drew a bases-loaded walk to bring in the second run.  A double down the third base line by Justin Saeger brought in two more runs and a single by Peter Botbyl added two more.

In the fifth inning, after Hacker hit a double and waited on second base, Sager smacked a hard shot to the short stop who fumbled the ball for a moment and threw too late to first.  Saeger was safe and Hacker scored. The game, after five innings was WV-PAL 7 and the Gladiators 0.

In the sixth, after Drake Flower hit a deep fly ball over the outfielders heads that ended up in a triple, Kyle Corso hit another deep fly ball that was caught but allowed Flower to score.

Number 4, Brett Tomback came in to pitch the final two innings for WV-Pal. After an error allowed the Gladiators first hitter to wind up on first, and back-to-back hits loaded the bases, a ground ball to second got the first out of the inning, but also sent in one runner to home, breaking the shut-out. 

The next Gladiator batter hit one high to the outfield, which not only ended up as an out, but the quick throw to the shortstop after the catch prevented another run to score. The last out of the inning was a dribbling ground ball to Corso at shortstop who hustled in, barehanded the ball and made a throw across his body and off-balance that got the runner out at first.  It was a highlight athletic play that prevented any further runs and took the air out of the Gladiator comeback.  

The score after six was 8-1, which was the same score that the Wayne Hills-PAL team lost to Fair Lawn earlier in the day.

In the seventh and final inning, Sean Dubois drew a walk, stole second, moved to third when K. McCaffrey singled and then scored when Hacker hit a ‘fielder’s choice’ infield hit.

The bottom of the seventh for the Gladiators started with a ground out, but then a looping shot put a runner on third.  A single scored that runner, but then Tomback settled down and ended the inning and the game with a ground out and a fly out.

Coach Lee Levitt of the Gladiators had great praise for the WV-PAL team. “They have a lot of great players and I have a lot of respect for [Coach S], I’ve known him for a long time.” 

What Levitt was most proud of was his son, Zack who put in a lot of effort to put the Gladiators team together. “He cobbled this team together. I’m proud of what he was able to do in such a short time. He paid for it with his work money, he got the sponsor.” Unfortunately, Zack Levitt was injured and couldn’t pitch, but was able to come in as a pinch-runner.

The win was essential today, as this tournament is basically single-elimination. WV-PAL will play Fair Lawn tomorrow and the winner of that game will be this 5-B division's champion and go on to play the 5-A division champion.  Today, the WH-PAL team lost, so they cannot win the tournament, but they still get two more game to play that are strictly just for fun.

TAPinto Wayne will continue to follow all the action.

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