St. Peter’s Prep. Delbarton. Bergen Catholic. Don Bosco Prep. Jefferson Township High School.
It’s not often you see the local Falcons in the same group as the aforementioned private school powerhouses, but the Last Dance World Series was a welcome exception. JTHS was among the final eight teams in the statewide baseball tournament’s North Jersey portion of the bracket.
“You look at some of those names, being in that kind of a crowd, it’s flattering, to be frank,” Johnny Knox said. “We knew going into this season that we could make some noise in the conference that we were in. We were still able to make an impact on this entire year through this tournament and play with some of the big dogs and prove that we can hang around with teams like Bosco or beat a team like (Bridgewater-Raritan). I feel like that really just showed what Jefferson is all about.”
Jefferson went 3-1 in their Last Dance showing, the lone blemish being their 3-1 North Region quarterfinal defeat at Yogi Berra Stadium against Don Bosco (labeled the Diamondbacks during their own tournament run). A trio of victories at Skylands Stadium preceded the surprising showing against the Diamonds, including a 5-3 thriller against Bridgewater-Raritan that allowed the Falcons to advance to Little Falls. Pool play in the Upper Morris Regional saw Jefferson top Randolph in a pitcher’s duel (1-0) and an offensive onslaught (11-0).
“No one expected us to be here. We (were) the underdog in every single game,” head coach Jason Kalish said after the final game. “Randolph, we were supposed to lose. Roxbury, we were supposed to lose. Bridgewater-Raritan, everybody thought we were going to lose.”
“It was a different guy each game. We rolled with what we had, and I couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
The idea behind the Last Dance was stored in its title, providing New Jersey seniors to don their school’s colors one final time after circumstances beyond their control. Jefferson’s seniors gave the town lasting memories in uncertain times, energized by a climactic opportunity four months in the making.
Destined for Nichols College in Massachusetts, Johnny Knox accounted for a majority of the Falcons’ box score tallies in the original victory over Randolph by earning both of the Falcon hits and scoring their only run before earning the last five outs on the pitcher’s mound in the win over Randolph. Zach Roskowsky, bound for the County College of Morris, threw 5⅓ innings of one-hit baseball beforehand to earn the narrow win. CJ White, Justin Cece, Kris Mankin, and John Liaci also donned the interlocking JT for summer proceedings.
Their time in Jefferson may be over, but this senior class’ impact will be felt for a long time.
“It’s a special group. When you have talented kids who are also great kids on and off the field, it makes it a lot more sweet. That’s what we had in the senior class,” Kalish remarked. “Our kids weren’t intimidated. They got the ball in play, they got some nice hits.
“I’m happy for my kids to have the opportunity to put the program on the map against these bigger programs and show that we didn’t just get here and get steamrolled (by the Diamondbacks). We showed that we can hang with these programs. For the younger guys, that’s something to build on.”
The Jefferson community also got a decent glimpse of the future in what was anything but a Last Dance for a team packed to the brim with underclassmen. Juniors Jack Urbano, Jason Taylor, Mike Novak, Austin Jack, and Tyler Ruban were all there in essential supporting roles that helped Jefferson capitalize on a new opportunity.
Urbano, for example, threw a shortened complete-game shutout against Roxbury before holding the mighty Don Bosco lineup to four hits in the final. Big run-scoring hits from Taylor and Ruban helped Jefferson respectively tie and take the lead in the back-and-forth dramatics against Bridgewater-Raritan. Cece would later provide an insurance run for the senior throwers Roskowsky and Knox by stealing second base in the penultimate inning then escaping a rundown to create the final margin.
Kalish hopes that his underclassmen will have a full season to look forward to next year. He’s confident that they can carry on the success established in the Last Dance to create a memorable final soiree of their own.
“We had 10 juniors in our program who are all great kids and love the game. We’ve got some talented freshmen and sophomores who are going to be sophomores and juniors. So, we’ll see what they do in the offseason, how hard they work, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited going into next season with what I’ve seen so far.”
“(The senior class) taught me to be humble,” Urbano said. “My class, my seniors, they were the most humble people I ever met in my life. They taught me a lot of life lessons.”
The ongoing medical crisis long delayed Jefferson’s first opportunity to take the field against another team. It almost ended their reunion tour early when their potential opponent to advance to the knockout round, Sussex Red (a union of student-athletes from High Point and Wallkill), had a player come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. That came after their original matchup on July 16 was put off due to the threats of storms.
Once the matchup with Sussex Red was rendered null and void, Jefferson prepared itself for a Monday morning matchup with Deptford on the campus of St. Joseph High School (Metuchen). Tournament officials allowed all of them to move onto to the North Jersey knockout. It was a cause for Falcon celebration, but the caveat was that Jefferson would have nearly a week off between their mastery over Roxbury and their showdown with Bridgewater-Raritan.
Jefferson conquered the layover problem in familiar fashion: together.
“That was definitely an interesting period. It was like every couple of hours something would change,” said Taylor. “We kind of all communicated with each other, we got six or seven guys to meet at the field on each of the two days before the game.”
“A pre-game day routine for us is that we all hit and then we all go to a pool and just chill in a pool. So we had to keep doing that,” Knox added. “Since we had a whole weekend off, we probably hit four or five of the six days off. We were hitting, we were getting ready. Our pitchers were staying loose and we were ready.”
Even in defeat, Kalish and his proteges managed to find victory. Facing an opponent that sent a starting pitcher bound for Virginia out, Jefferson managed to outhit the Diamondbacks by a 6-5 margin. They landed on the wrong side of things in the run column, but the common theme amongst the team was that the final game in Little Falls wasn’t the end…but rather the potential start of something bigger, beyond Morris County.
“I’m definitely excited to see what we can do next year,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of juniors that I think are going to step up and have really big years. Also, we have really good sophomores and a freshmen class that will take on some pretty big roles next year. I think we’re going to be pretty good. We’re going to have a chance to make a big run next year.”
“We didn’t give up any time. We just always wanted to win. We fell short, but next year’s our year. We’re going to come up bigger,” Urbano remarked while looking back on the experience. “Next year we’re just going to try to do our best and win every game we can. We’re not going to give up.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags