A Belmar batter swings at a pitch by RBI Baseball during a July 14 “Last Dance” tournament game in Wall. RBI Baseball, consisting of players from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, took a 6-0 win over Belmar, which was composed of players from St. Rose High School. Rich Hundley photo
A Belmar batter swings at a pitch by RBI Baseball during a July 14 “Last Dance” tournament game in Wall. RBI Baseball, consisting of players from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, took a 6-0 win over Belmar, which was composed of players from St. Rose High School. Rich Hundley photo

When his senior season of baseball was canceled due to COVID-19, St. John Vianney’s Dominic Cerniglia turned to prayer.

Then came the “Last Dance” World Series, which gave 222 New Jersey high school teams the opportunity to play a competitive tournament July 14-31. 

“I was praying I got one last chance,” said Cerniglia, who recently graduated from the Holmdel high school. “When it came out with the news we were doing a tournament, it was like a prayer answered.”

Pitcher Connor Egan, who missed his senior season at Trenton Catholic Academy, felt likewise.

“I was praying we could get back out there,” said Egan, a parishioner of St. Raphael-Holy Angels, Hamilton. “I was with three of my teammates when we found out about the season [being canceled]. There was no talking, no anything. Just silence.”

It was a little different when he got word of the “Last Dance.”

“I was jumping around,” Egan said. “I ran through my house to all my family members. It was exciting.”

Getting Closure

The brainchild of Mike Murray, athletic director and head baseball coach in St. Joseph High School, Metuchen, the tournament was designed to give seniors one last hurrah, but high school players of any age were eligible.

“Mike Murray did a great job,” said coach Rich Lanko of St. Rose High School, Belmar. “He had a ton of work to do to get this thing together. Everyone appreciates it.”

Since the tournament was not affiliated with the NJSIAA, the state’s governing athletic body, teams could not represent their high schools. The teams had to go by a different name, and players had to help pay for uniforms and other expenses if their school could not get a sponsor.

SJV went by RBI Baseball and won two games in pool play, while TCA was the NJ Tigers and also won twice, coming within a win of a South Section Sweet 16 berth.

Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High School, which named itself Lawrence Road Irish, was the lone Diocese of Trenton squad to reach the round of 16 in the South section. The tournament concluded July 31, when the North and South champions met at Arm & Hammer Stadium in Trenton.

A young Belmar team, which represented St. Rose, went 0-3 in pool play, but catcher Nolan Dacey felt fortunate to get closure to his career since he will not be playing in college.

“I didn’t get a game [this past spring] knowing it was my final game,” said Dacey, of St. Denis Parish, Manasquan.

“Now I got to know when my last at-bat was. I got to take in the moment, which is a lot more meaningful.”

Cerniglia felt the same way, saying, “I had just made the decision I would either walk-on or not play at all at West Chester (University in Pennsylvania), so the chance I might have played my last game ever without knowing it was kind of upsetting.”

Adrenaline Rush

When the tournament became official, teams were allowed to practice for several weeks, but due to a state rule, their high school coaches could not join them until July 13, one day before the tournament started. Once those July 14 games were played, it was like lightning was unleashed.

“For the most part, I’ve never seen our kids with that kind of energy,” said RBI Baseball assistant coach Scott Bellone. “It’s almost like it was bottled up.”

Belmar fell to RBI Baseball in the opener, but Lanko said his team had the same energy. “We were definitely excited. The Shore Conference is always loud, a lot of energy, but there was definitely something extra from the teams.”

NJ Tigers’ pitcher/outfielder Ali Pompey agreed. “We were so hyped for it, ready to get back out practicing again … hoping to give our all. All the adrenaline was rushing that first day. Everyone was ready to have fun, play the game.”

Scouting Opportunities

Pompey is still undecided on where he will play in college, and felt that missing a final season to play in front of scouts might limit his choices. Fortunately, pro scouts and all college scouts, except for Division I, were allowed to attend games.

“I saw some community college guys at our games,” Lanko said. “Missing the spring especially hurt the juniors; it’s such a huge year for them [recruiting-wise]. So it’s huge to have this and have some of the travel leagues and showcases starting up.”