When local high school baseball teams were preparing for the 2020 season to begin back in early March, Lyndhurst and Nutley were two squads with legitimate high hopes and aspirations.
After all, both the Golden Bears and Maroon Raiders were coming off winning seasons in 2019. They both had a ton of talent returning for this season with deep pitching staffs and heady, intelligent players.
So therefore, there were a lot of reasons for confidence on both sides of the Passaic River.
But the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on all that sanguinity in both camps. The entire season was disappointingly canceled.
However, three intelligent baseball men — namely St. Joseph (Metuchen) head coach Mike Murray, Jr., Millburn head coach Brian Chapman and well traveled baseball scout and gadfly John Kroeger devised the idea to have a summer baseball tournament, called the Last Dance World Series, giving New Jersey’s baseball teams a chance to play together one more time.
When the prospects of the Last Dance were first discussed, the organizers hoped to get at least 64 teams to hold a legitimate tourney. They never fathomed the idea that they would get a whopping total of 222 teams to sign up to participate in the tourney.
Four local teams registered for the round robin get-together, which was slated to begin after press time Tuesday at 56 sites all over the state.
Each four-team sectional will see the teams face each other all once, with the teams with the best records after the round robin phase moving on to the single-elimination quarterfinal round beginning next Tuesday, July 21 at Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls.
Last week, we focused on Belleville, which was slated to face host West Orange in the first round Tuesday night at 7 p.m. The two other teams in that section are Passaic Valley and Seton Hall Prep, slated to face off Tuesday in West Orange at 2 p.m.
North Arlington, which was also featured last week, is headed to Wood-Ridge, where the Vikings will face the host team also at 7 p.m. Midland Park and Bogota are the other two teams in that section with that game to have first pitch at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
And the other two local teams ready to give it a go in the Last Dance are the aforementioned teams that had such gigantic hopes back in March.
Lyndhurst won’t have to travel far to play in the Last Dance World Series, heading to the Becton Regional section in East Rutherford.
The Golden Bears will face Hasbrouck Heights in the first round of the round robin portion at 2 p.m.
Lyndhurst High School head coach Pat Auteri said that his team had been preparing on their own.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to get back on the field together again,” Auteri said. “The kids have all been pretty excited every since they first read about the tournament on Twitter last month. When they found out where we were playing and at what time, they reached out to me. I know some of the seniors have been chomping at the bit.”
Auteri said that he feels pretty fortunate to receive the invitation to play in the tourney.
“It’s absolutely a blessing to get the invite,” Auteri said. “I can’t believe how big it became. The organizers (Murray, Chapman and Kroeger) did a tremendous job putting it all together. There were so many pieces that had to fall into place. But we pretty much have a full roster (of 19 kids) and we’re going to get them all into the games.”
Lyndhurst’s Recreation facility would have been a perfect spot to serve as a host, but the field is undergoing a major renovation, with the FieldTurf being replaced.
“I think the teams with the most pitching are the ones that will come out of (the section),” Auteri said. “We’re just going to get the kids together and go. It’s a great job in terms of proximity for us. It’s nice that we’re going to Becton.”
The Golden Bears will have a host of pitchers, which should give them a fighting chance to move on to Yogi Berra Stadium. Auteri can call upon talented righty Adam Venezia, who won four games last high school season as a sophomore. Jonathon Berko, Yianni Lazaris, Aaron Alvarez and Anthony DeMarco are all quality pitchers with varsity experience.
Alvarez batted .326 with two homers and 18 RBI in the 2019 season for the Golden Bears. Berko hit .346 with one homer and 13 RBI. Catcher Rob Bloom batted .384 with 18 RBI. Needless to say, this is a talented team and one to be reckoned with.
The same can be said for Nutley. Veteran coach Bob Harbison also has a full roster of eager Maroon Raiders ready for action. They will face host Lodi in the opening round Tuesday with first pitch scheduled for 5 p.m.
“It now seems more like a reality,” Harbison said. “The kids were all looking forward to the location, to the opponents and the dates to play. The kids are really excited to be playing. Murray, Chapman and Kroeger did a great job putting this together. I’m glad that we’re getting the chance to play different teams.”
Rutherford and Elmwood Park play the first game at Lodi Tuesday at 1 p.m. Rutherford’s coach is Carmine Spina, a Belleville native who now resides in Nutley.
“Carmine is a good friend,” Harbison said. “We always like to play each other. Our teams are from similar pedigree. Our kids were bouncing off the walls, thinking about this game and now it’s here. They’re on their toes, ready to go. They just want to get back out on the field and play together again.”
Nutley is the top seed in the Lodi section with Rutherford the No. 2 seed.
The Maroon Raiders will have lefty Trevor Santos ready to pitch. Santos is headed to Manhattan College on a baseball scholarship in the fall. Kevin Hogan, headed for Felician, will also get a chance to pitch in the tournament, as will Jake Walsh and Andrew Budine, who pitched a shutout over Belleville in his last outing of the 2019 season.
At the plate, Hogan hit .411 with 30 RBI in the 2019 season. Santos hit .333 with 34 RBI for the Maroon Raiders, who posted a 22-7 record in 2019.
So it should be a fun couple of weeks as baseball will make a return around the state.
Lyndhurst will look to Aaron Alvarez (left) to lead the Golden Bears in the Last Dance World Series that begins this week, while Nutley will look to Felician-bound Kevin Hogan (right) to be a mainstay for the Maroon Raiders.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”