CRANFORD, NJ — When the pandemic caused the entire nation to come to a standstill, that standstill included a freeze on all sports. Those who played sports, including high school athletes throughout New Jersey, couldn’t finish their seasons.
Last Dance Tournament Director Michael Murray Jr., who is also director of athletics at Saint Joseph High School in Metuchen, has always possessed a love for sports, and, like most sports fans, he couldn’t bear the thought of COVID-19 wiping away what he loved.
“Sports and baseball in particular have always been a safe haven and sanctuary for my family,” Murray said on Aug. 17. “My dad played at Union Catholic, then Kean University, and was in the minor leagues with the Chicago White Sox. My younger brother played at Westfield High School, Georgia Tech, and professionally with the Twins and Brewers. My sister played softball at ALJ and then University of Maryland. I played at Westfield, Wake Forest and then professionally with the Giants.
“Sports have given our family an outlet to deal with some of the real life things we all have to deal with,” he continued. “I started thinking of the tournament and the outlet it could be for players.”
Looking to make up for lost time, Murray sought closure for the graduating high school seniors and tried to think of a way that would properly close the chapter of their high school athletic career.
“As director of athletics and baseball coach at Saint Joe’s, I spent most of the early part of the pandemic trying to figure out what a spring season could look like with other coaches and ADs,” Murray said. “As we realized that COVID-19 was going to be here longer than six to eight weeks, we knew that spring wasn’t going to be an option. At that time, I shifted my focus to trying to have an idea in place for summer.
“My timetable was trying to figure out anything before the 2020 graduating seniors would be leaving for college to try and get them some closure,” he continued. “We thought a tournament/bracket-style event could generate some excitement and could be done in a short enough time window to make it meaningful. Hopefully, it was.”
From there, the Last Dance High School Baseball Tournament was created. With 222 teams competing throughout the event and following the construct of the NCAA College World Series, divided into North and South regions, July proved to be an exciting time for players.
“The goal of the tournament was to give the high school seniors and their teammates that lost the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19 an opportunity to have some control over how they closed out their athletic careers in high school,” Murray said. “The primary goals were to do this safely and allow it to be fun for almost 4,400 players. The tournament started with pool play on July 13 through 15 and culminated in the overall championship game on July 31.”
At that final July 31 game, Cranford emerged as the victors, winning the North championship of the Last Dance Tournament, at Arm and Hammer Stadium in Trenton, which is the home of the Trenton Thunder.
Cranford assistant baseball coach and administrator Michael Plick spoke proudly of his team’s record.
“They won the tournament. Their record was 8-0. Cranford defeated Jackson Memorial to win the tournament, and their final score was 12-2 in five innings,” said Plick, who coaches the team with Richard Meola.
Plick also chronicled the team’s efforts on the road to victory.
“This team started practicing on June 22,” Plick said. “They had about 20 practices leading up to their first game on July 14. Before the first practice, they set a goal to win the tournament. They never lost focus of that goal and put in the hard work and determination to achieve that goal.”
As the coronavirus made everything more difficult for everyone and with safety being of major concern, Murray, as the founder of the tournament, had to make certain adjustments to ensure everything ran smoothly.
“Certainly, it wasn’t a normal operating procedure for a tournament with COVID-19 considerations,” Murray said. “We partnered with Premier Sports Medicine to provide athletic trainers at all 57 sites, and they were responsible for checking players in with temperature/symptom checks and communicating with the tournament directors.
“RWJBarnabas Health hopped in as the presenting sponsor of the tournament, as well as Summit Orthopedics as a sponsor, so we were fortunate to have a lot of great support and information passed along to us from people that spend their time keeping people healthy,” he continued. “We knew we would be dealing with the reality of the virus. Fortunately, we got through the tournament with only a few contract-tracing– and COVID-19–related issues that impacted six of the 222 teams. I think we gained invaluable information in what it is going to take to conduct sports safely moving forward.”
There were numerous helping hands to make this initiative happen.
“The event was really driven by communities,” Murray said. “RWJBarnabas Health, MorganFranklin Consulting, Summit Orthopedics, Premier Sports Medicine drove the event on the sponsorship side of things, but it took a village of baseball communities that were donating time, energy, resources, field spaces, volunteers, etc. United States Specialty Sports Association was the sanctioning body of the tournament and managed logistics, working with health officials, CDC. Our umpiring community, coaches community, etc., were all critical in making the event work, and then, at the end of the day, it was parents, friends, family enjoying watching their loved ones get to play baseball. For a few weeks, it was just a normal feel, which was nice.”
A success in its own right, the Last Dance Tournament has created lasting good memories.
“We set out to run something fun for the boys and keep it safe. We accomplished that,” Murray said. “There were certainly hiccups and things we needed to work with throughout the tournament. But 4,400 players got to leave high school baseball on a little bit more of their own terms and create some memories. I am most happy that, for these young men, they will have pictures in a uniform with their teammates competing and having fun. I wish we could have given them a full season and that we never had to do this, but I am happy with the result and very grateful for all of the help we’ve received in making it happen.”
Plick feels honored to have made yet another memory with the Cranford team.
“Personally, it was an honor to coach these young men prior to their first game,” Plick said. “Having my youngest son on the team and this being his last chance to play for Cranford baseball before heading to college made the experience extremely satisfying.”
Despite the truncated spring 2020 baseball season, Plick believes this ordeal has united the team.
“Although COVID eliminated the high school spring season, I believe it brought this team closer together,” Plick said. “The seniors had lost so much during the spring and were grateful to have one last chance to play with their teammates. The underclassman did everything possible to make sure the seniors had an unforgettable experience and outcome. This team gave the town of Cranford something to cheer about for the last half of July. The support the team received from the town and TV35 was amazing and will never be forgotten.”
Murray is hopeful for baseball’s future, even with the continuing pandemic.
“I think fortunately, baseball is in an OK spot relative to playing in the pandemic,” Murray said. “There is some natural distance in baseball in most spots on a field, and it being outdoors certainly helps. I coached in the Last Dance and also coach a team of graduating seniors on weekends. Baseball has felt close to normal on the field, coupled with all of the precautions off the field. I think it still has great value as an outlet for players, coaches and families to take their minds off some of the more critical and important things going on in our communities and just enjoy a little bit of normalcy.”