Baseball – Early Talks of Statewide Tournament in Works
Between the cancellation of the 2020 high-school spring sports season in New Jersey and the labor dispute that is threatening the return of Major League Baseball baseball this summer, there has not been much, if any, good news for baseball players and fans over the last two months.
St. Joseph of Metuchen head baseball coach Mike Murray and a group of coaches from around the state are in the early stages of setting up a statewide tournament to be played in July that, if conditions permit, would give high-school players a chance to compete with what would essentially be their high-school team.
The event would, naturally, be contingent upon current restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic being lifted by Governor Phil Murphy.
"It will not be a senior season, but perhaps we can create something that gets those competitive juices flowing and more than anything else, gets (the players) some closure that they deserve to this chapter," Murray said in his written proposal. "While a month from now, we may find that restrictions are still in place and we cannot make it happen, I think the biggest disservice to our kids would be getting a window to do something and not having something prepared."
The event is being called the "Last Dance Tournament" and the proposal - reported first by MyCentralJersey.com - is for two 64-team tournaments - one among 13 counties considered to be "North Jersey" (Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex, Somerset, Union, Essex, Hudson, Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Sussex, Hunterdon and Warren) and eight more (Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Salem, Cumberland and Cape May) in the south.
The 64 teams in each section would be broken up in 16 pools of four teams each. Each team would play three pool-play games and the winner of each pool would advance to a 16-team, single-elimination tournament to determine the winner in their region.
The winner of each section will be awarded championship rings and will play one another for the overall championship and a championship trophy.
Given the uncertainty of the number of teams that will fill out prospective applications, the proposal of 64 teams in each section is a fluid number. Murray said he has no intention of turning teams away and if the numbers far exceeded 64 in either section, the plan would be to offer a "small-school" bracket. If the numbers are smaller than 64, there would be fewer pools and either byes or play-in rounds would be incorporated.
Teams have been asked to respond with their level of interest by June 12.
"I don’t plan on turning people away, just finding a way to massage that format," Murray told Shore Sports Network. "That’s why I want to have all teams by June 12, so we have a month to make any needed amendments."
According to Murray, the tournament would be sanctioned by the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), which would include the USSSA providing an insurance plan, a COVID-19 waiver to be signed by parents or guardians, website and scheduling services, site supervision and championship rings for the North and South winners. Each team would have to pay $125 to the USSSA for those services, according to Murray, as well as the cost of one umpire ($80) per game.
Teams would also be responsible for game balls and providing their players with team shirts and hats that comply with NJSIAA rules forbidding summer teams from wearing the in-season uniform. While it would have to abide by NJSIAA rules and regulations regarding uniforms and contact with coaches, the tournament would not be run by the NJSIAA.
The proposed tournament would run from July 7 to July 23 and would attempt to take advantage of a dead period for NCAA recruiting through the end of July, which would push travel showcase events into August.
It would also, however, be contingent on organized sports being allowed by Murphy. Recent easing of restrictions make it plausible that baseball could be played in some form or fashion before the potential start date of the Last Dance Tournament, but would need for those restrictions - gatherings of 50 or more people - to be lifted.
"We are only looking to help bring these boys to play ball and play with seniors one last time," Murray said. "The goal is not to lobby the Governor for an ability to run this tournament. We want to be prepared and have a turnkey, viable tournament option for our 2020 spring rosters to enjoy if baseball is back in July. We want to use baseball as a sanctuary in a return to our new normal that is hopefully coming this summer."
The plan is also contingent on finding enough schools or municipalities that would be willing to offer up their fields as a host sites. The proposal calls for 16 unique sites in each section, although that is another aspect of the proposal that could be subject to change.
The other current challenge is that the NJSIAA is currently forbidding coaches from having in-person contact with their teams and has announced the formation of task forces to determine the course of action for restarting high school sports. Any state-mandated guidelines are likely to follow the NFHS guidelines released on May 19, which includes a three-part phase-in that includes monitoring temperature and symptoms of all players and athletes.
While the Last Dance Tournament would not be NJSIAA sanctioned, the NJSIAA could potentially require coaches to follow NFHS guidelines in order to clear them for contact with their players. Either way, for high school head coaches to be involved, they will need clearance from the NJSIAA.
"It is my sincere hope the NJSIAA would understand what we are trying to do here," Murray said. "But I would like to make sure we do not create any unnecessary hurdles or hiccups."