By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Bob Dickenson watched the Vineland High School baseball team compete in the Last Dance World Series — a 222-team, statewide tournament set up to give high school baseball seniors in New Jersey one last chance to play after their 2020 spring season was wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic — and knew that he had to try to do something to get the nine Fighting Clan softball seniors one last chance to don their uniforms and compete for their hometown.
He ran the idea of a similar tournament, albeit on a much smaller scale, past Vineland coach Kristina Kulik and her staff, and then got to work contacting all the softball coaches in the Cape-Atlantic League to see if anybody would be interested in taking part in what came to be known as the Last Out Tournament at Vineland’s Fiocchi Field, the Babe Ruth League baseball and softball complex in the center of town. Six other teams joined Vineland, including five from the CAL plus Williamstown, in what was to be a four-day tournament but an event that stretched over parts of two weeks due to hurricane Isaias, which whipped up the East coast the first week of August.
Vineland, Egg Harbor Township, Williamstown, Buena Regional, Cedar Creek, Oakcrest and Mainland Regional all took part, and, fittingly, the championship game came down to Vineland vs. EHT — a pair of South Jersey Group 4 rivals who met in the state playoffs a year ago. The Eagles rallied with two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to score a 4-3, walkoff victory, but when it was all said and done all the teams were winners for being able to give their seniors at least one more opportunity to play high school softball.
“I went and watched the Last Dance for the boys, and I thought something had to be done for the girls. I talked to coach Kulik and the rest of the (Vineland) coaches and said, ‘do you guys mind if I try to put this together?’ They gave me all the contact information for the coaches in the CAL and I sent out emails, followed up with text messages. Coach (Pam) Pickett of Buena helped out a lot with getting some teams involved. It was worth it just to see the girls put on the red-and-gray one more time,” said Dicksenson, whose twin daughters, Brooke and Bailey, are starting infielders and juniors at Vineland High. “It was definitely a challenge — just like 2020 has been so far this year — with the weather, but we were glad to get it in. There was a packed house every night and I think everybody enjoyed it, so it was worth it for me.”
It was no surprise that the title game came down to Vineland and EHT, considering they are two of the best programs in South Jersey. Two years ago, the Fighting Clan played in a Group 4 state championship game, and this year’s Eagles seniors were freshmen in 2017 when EHT won the state championship. These programs also have two of the elite pitchers in South Jersey, Nicole Ortega, a 2020 graduate of Vineland, and Haley Korsak, a rising senior at EHT. Korsak broke onto the scene last year as a sophomore while Ortega is a former Press of Atlantic City Player of the Year.
“There was no better outcome for me than to see a game like that played (in the final). It was mistake-free, it came down to the wire and EHT came out on top. All these (Vineland) girls have been playing softball with my daughters since they were 8 years old and you couldn’t ask for not only great athletes, ballplayers and student-athletes, but the young women they’ve become means a lot. Seeing them grow up and mature, and seeing them now going on to the next stage of their life — as their former coach, I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Dickenson said. “I’m a firm believer that the CAL is one of the toughest conferences in the state. We have a lot of good ballplayers down here in South Jersey. Not just the Vineland girls, but I know a lot of the girls on other teams through the travel circuit, and we’re full of talent down here. This was a great way to show off all the talent we have here.”
“This meant everything. We heard the boys were having a tournament so we pushed for one, and to finally get one meant everything. This is where I’m going to cry. This is the field we played tee-ball on, this is where it all started for us, so to start pitching here, and to finish pitching on the same field — that means the world,” said Ortega, who helped lead Vineland to a Babe Ruth 14-year-old World Series title a few years ago. “These girls, we grew up with them, so to get one last chance to play with them — knowing these would be our last games — if I were to have known that my last game was my junior year and I’d never be able to play with them again, I don’t know how I would have handled myself.”
Zoe Frisko, Vineland’s third baseman who plans to play at Rowan University next year, had an outstanding tournament that included two home runs on the final day, when the Fighting Clan had to win games against Cedar Creek and Oakcrest to make it to the championship game in the double-elimination format. She was emotional after the loss to EHT, not because of the outcome, but because she’ll never again be able to represent Vineland High as a softball player and student-athlete.
“I didn’t think about it until now, that I’m never going to wear the Vineland uniform again. I am so thankful for the years I’ve spent here. I have memories that I’m never going to forget and people who have become family, and I’ll love them forever. It was a great feeling, the last time hitting a home run on this field. I’ll remember these girls, and this game, and how much energy we had, forever,” she said. “It meant so much to us. We really didn’t think we were going to have a season, so to have these last few games to play together. I’m so thankful for it, and I wouldn’t trade this for the world. Just sitting in the dugout, watching all the girls cheering and seeing how hyped we all were, it just hits you. It’s the last time you’ll see them all doing that.”
Freshman Madison Biddle turned out to be the hero for EHT, as her two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning provided the winning runs, and the Eagles seniors reveled in the victory. But, more important than winning, they said, was simply getting the chance to play one more time.
“It was kind of breathtaking and such a happy moment,” said EHT senior outfielder Peyton McGowan, who scored the game-tying run as the runner on second base when the eighth inning started using international tiebreaker rules. “I couldn’t have had it any other way. I was just thinking that I was excited to play, so I’m going to go out there to win and give it all I have. I’m just happy we were able to finish it out on top.”
“I’ve never been so excited and ready to just hug all my teammates. That was such a great feeling,” fellow senior Zoe Bork said. “It’s just a great opportunity. This was such an amazing opportunity for everyone, and this is a really special group of girls and I’m really lucky I got to share my last year with them. I’m so thankful that they got something together for us and were able to make this happen.”
Added senior infielder Jess Sarni, “It was really special to come back out and play, especially after everything that’s been happening. I was really happy to come out here. The last four years we’ve played Vineland, it was always a battle to see who would win each year. Beating them in our last game was really something special, and I’m happy we could do it.”
Players throughout South Jersey were crushed when their 2020 season was canceled, so, at least for some, the Last Out Tournament provided some closure to their careers.
“It feels good to know that I was able to salvage everything — to say ‘this was my last’, this was my last at-bat, this is my last pitch, this is my last time doing this with all these girls. It felt good to salvage that,” Ortega said. “I think the best part was giving everybody a last chance, especially since this season was uncertain, it was great to give everyone one last chance. I’ll always remember that this prepared me for everything, the competition, the sportsmanship, all that has prepared me for life.”
For Dickenson, running the tournament provided a host of challenges, not the least of which was trying to get the fields ready to play on after a hurricane followed by another rain storm later that week. But after seeing how well the tournament was received by those involved, he said he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
“I didn’t mind it one bit. To see an outcome like this, it was all worth it, absolutely.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays