Rising to the challenge

After their senior seasons were taken away, baseball players get the chance to compete one final time in Last Dance tournament.

Recent Bishop Eustace Prep graduate Chuck Sanzio, who will play baseball at St. John’s University in 2021, is among the Class of 2020 members who had the opportunity to finish out their prep careers in the Last Dance tournament this month. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

A week after finally getting to graduate with his friends following a long, frustrating spring and the beginning of an uncertain summer, Anthony Schooley packed his things inside the dugout at Owens Park in Williamstown.

The team representing Cherokee High School in the Last Dance tournament saw its run come to an end against the Saders from Bishop Eustace Prep in the South Region’s round of 32. The Chiefs played four games in the tourney.

“Yeah, four compared to 20 is a little bit different, but it’s definitely good to get back out here,” Schooley said. “It sucks not to have that full season.”

Schooley was able to work out the math the other way, too. Four compared to zero was preferable, and up until a month ago, high school baseball players weren’t very confident they would get anything out of what appeared to be a lost 2020 season.

“It was brutal — brutal,” Eustace’s Chuck Sanzio said. “You had to do whatever you could to take your mind off of having the season taken away from you.”

“You’re doing the same workouts every day and nothing is happening,” added fellow Eustace senior Chase Conklin. “You’re like, ‘Why am I doing these workouts? For what reason?’”

Zach Weiner prepares for a pitch as his Cherokee teammates watch from the dugout. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Although the setup of the Last Dance tournament could have been better — a more controlled environment with no fans and mandatory masks for those everywhere outside the white lines, for starters — it has given seniors from all across the state one final opportunity to put on their uniforms with their friends and finish out their prep careers.

Eustace’s senior-laden club, under the moniker Saders in the tournament —  an event not sanctioned by the NJSIAA — was eager to make the most of the moment. The core of its team started or played significant varsity time during the duration of their high school careers and knew they were talented enough to make a run at Eustace’s first state championship in 19 years.

The Last Dance presented them with the best opportunity to replicate that run.

“You work all four years to get to this point and then you’re at your pinnacle point and it’s taken away,” said Eustace’s Nick Senior. “And then all of a sudden you hear about this and it’s, ‘OK, we might have one shot.’ And every game is like a do-or-die type of situation. 

“Every game, you’re playing your heart out — not that you wouldn’t if it was a regular season — but there’s extra pressure because it could be taken away with one pitch (or) one swing of the bat,” Senior added. “You never know what could be taken (away).”

The Saders from Eustace won for the second time in less than 24 hours last Wednesday morning to advance to the tournament’s Sweet 16 (or, more accurately, to the Round of 8 in the South Region). Whether they win the whole thing or not, the July weeks they spent working together for a common goal will have been a worthwhile experience after sitting at home playing video games in April. 

“Too many video games,” Sanzio laughed. “‘Call of Duty.’ But it’s not just about the game … We’d at least still talk to each other (while playing the game online) and it’d feel like we were together.”

The brotherhood carried over when the team reconvened on the field this month. And the opportunity to play went beyond Conklin (who will play at Richmond University), Senior (St. Joseph’s) and Sanzio (St. John’s) all having the chance to compete together one last time before taking their baseball careers into college. It allowed the seniors from Eustace, and the dozens of other programs that took the field this month, to pass the baton to the next group of upperclassmen ready to lead their respective teams.

Bishop Eustace’s Chase Conklin takes a breather in between pitches during an at-bat Tuesday. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“(This tournament) is for the seniors, but it’s also for the underclassmen that didn’t get the chance to have that mentor, that guy to push them forward, to show them what the leadership is and what Eustace is about,” Conklin said.

“We’re a family. If we didn’t have this, I think it would have been hard for them next year, just how to deal with adversity, to learn how to come back when you’re down like we did today.”

Eustace rallied back from a 4-1 deficit in their game against Cherokee last week. For anyone from the class of 2020, though, trailing by a few runs in a baseball game comes with a new perspective following a tumultuous spring when they lost out on so much.

“It just shows you that life isn’t fair,” Sanzio said of persevering through the pandemic. “For our seniors, we had our senior trip taken, our Italy trip taken. We had a lot of experiences taken away from us. A lot of us could have felt sorry for ourselves and gave up. But we tried to work for something, to look on the bright side of things.

“We were hoping for a tournament like this where we can come up and show what we can do,” Sanzio added. “It was a teaching lesson. Who knew a pandemic would happen? 

“But you have to take what life throws at you. Adapt and overcome.”