Baseball – Point Boro and Midd. South Pull Out of Last Dance World Series
The Last Dance World Series teams from Point Pleasant Boro and Middletown South pulled out of the tournament Sunday over concerns that players on their teams were exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus, tournament organizer John Kroeger said and first reported by NJ Advanced Media.
According to Kroeger, the teams notified the tournament organizers of the possible exposure and of their efforts to get the players in question tested and cleared by their next games, which would have been on Tuesday at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood for both.
The organizers, however, have been working closely with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which conveyed that the because the potential exposure of the players was less than five days ago - the incubation period of the virus - the rapid-result test would not be valid. By the time a valid test could be conducted, Tuesday's round of 16 would have already been played.
Point Boro coach Dave Drew said one of his players notified him on Saturday that he took a test for the virus that came back positive, although he is still awaiting official confirmation via lab results.
Point Boro and MS Baseball - the name under which the Middletown South players were playing in the Last Dance - are the only two teams to advance through the pool play round that have had to withdraw from the tournament as of Sunday afternoon.
"Based on the possibility that he's positive, we decided we could no longer be part of tournament and to cancel all baseball activities for the time being," Drew said.
Drew was notified of the CDC's recommendation that the teams not be allowed to continue, but his decision was already made. He told his players they should stay away from each other and quarantine until they heard the lab results, as well as that they would not be able to play in the next round of the tournament.
"I was already of the mindset that I wasn't going to move forward, regardless of what the lab results said," Drew said. "I don't even know when I would have moved forward if there were more games to play. When I found out about this, being in the tournament was pretty much the last thing on my mind."
Dean Esposito was in charge of running the MS Baseball team during the tournament and found out Friday that someone who is in a circle of friends with several players on the team tested positive for the virus. At that point, Esposito said, he told everyone on his team that they needed to be tested and every player on the roster was able to take a test on either Friday or Saturday. According to Esposito, multiple players came back with positive tests, none of whom were exhibiting symptoms.
"I spoke with (Kroeger) on Friday and I was told that we could continue with anyone who tests negative," Esposito said. "When we spoke again today, he said the CDC wasn't going to clear it because we had to wait another five days, which means we would have to wait until Thursday just to take the test again.
"Not for nothing, if every team did what we did, you're going to find some positive results," Esposito said. "We did what we thought was the right thing to do. We found out we had a possible exposure and we got as much information as we could. It's not for me to police the other teams in the tournament but it's my responsibility to police our team and we did what was in the best interest of the safety of the kids and their families."
With two teams from the South Jersey region of the tournament now removed from the field, the matchups for Tuesday's round of 16 have been changed. Brooklawn and the SJ Spartans - teams comprised of players from Gloucester Catholic and Deptford, respectively - were scheduled to play a play-in game on Monday but instead will both advance into open spots in the South Jersey Region. Deptford will play St. Joseph of Metuchen's SJ Falcons at 6:30 in Lakewood and Brooklawn will replace Middletown South in the 8:30 a.m. game vs. Middletown North.
Point Boro's spot will go to a North Jersey team from High Point-Wallkill, which was also set for a play-in game on Monday vs. Jefferson. Instead, Jefferson advances to the open slot in North Jersey to play Bridgewater-Raritan on Tuesday at Skyland Stadium in Sussex County.
Point Boro earned a spot in the South Jersey Round of 16 by going 3-0 during the week of pool play with wins over Point Pleasant Beach, Barnegat's B Baseball, and Griffins Baseball of Donovan Catholic. The Panthers were also set to welcome back St.-John's-bound ace Nick Guzzi for the upcoming week after he was unable to play during the first week.
"My team had this in the back of their minds," Drew said. "We wanted to win but we wanted to do it safely. The philosophy we live by in this program is 'Family first; school second; team third.' We're still waiting to hear if it's a confirmed positive test and we're hoping that's not the case. My primary concern right now is for my players and their families, so continuing to play just wasn't going to be an option right now."
MS Baseball advanced to the second week of the tournament in dramatic fashion, with senior catcher Anthony Esposito hitting a game-winning, walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning on Thursday to give his team a come-from-behind, 7-4, win over Matawan.
"It was a blessing to be able to get out there and play three games after they lost their high-school season," Esposito said. "We felt really confident about team going forward in the tournament. We thought we had a good chance to make it to next week but unfortunately, that's not going to happen. But just to get out to play three games and to win the last one like we did and see excitement kids had, I think that made the experience worth it."
The next step for the Middletown South squad was to be a round-of-16 game in Lakewood against crosstown rival Middletown North. The MS Baseball team was led by Middletown South's experienced 2020 senior core of Esposito, Chris O'Connor, Danny Minze, Chris Lotito and Jack Sheridan, with seniors Mike Rauso, Mike Barbara and Pat Eagone also playing key roles.
"Four of the five seniors are going to play in college, so you feel bad for the guys who were getting their last chance to play," Esposito said. "The future is still very bright for South. They are losing a very good senior group, but they've got a good group of pitchers coming back and some talent coming up."
Teams from Manasquan and Red Bank Regional pulled out of the tournament for COVID-related reasons, with neither making it to their first game. Manasquan pulled out in time for the tournament to sign up Wall as a replacement while Red Bank's Bucs Baseball team had to withdraw on the day of their first scheduled game against Neptune.
Other than replacing Point Boro and Middletown South with other teams, Tuesday's schedule remains the same. Kroeger said that there will be additional emphasis on enforcing that players in the dugouts are wearing masks and practicing social distancing on the field.
"I'm pretty confident that my team did a very good job with social distancing," Drew said. "We avoided huddles, we had our masks and we were very aware of the situation. The challenge is you don't know what everybody is doing or where everybody is going when they are not at the field."
Kroeger also said that venues will no longer sell tickets in advance and that they the first 450 people to arrive at the venues will be let in with the capacity limit being strictly enforced. The stadiums will be cleared out at the end of each game and a new group of fans will be let in for the next game.
Middletown South fans who purchased tickets for Tuesday's game in Lakewood can be granted a full refund by contacting the ticket office.