New coach, no problem for PV graduates’ “Last Dance” team

“Valley Storm” led by player/coach plays in 222-team tournament


BJ McGrane

In “The Last Dance” tournament, a team consisting of thirteen players from Pascack Valley will attempt to be the last team standing in the 222-team tournament. The Valley Storm is coached by Jake Lutz, who is also one of ten seniors playing for the team.

BJ McGrane, Sports Editor

With all the controversy surrounding the removal of the mascots for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, it didn’t take long for Jake Lutz and his fellow PV Class of 2020 teammates to come up with a nickname for their team in “The Last Dance” baseball tournament.

“The team my dad started when I was six years old was the Jersey Storm,” Lutz said. “For him, we decided to be the Valley Storm.”

Rick Lutz, Jake’s father, passed away in March due to cancer, so his son and the rest of the team decided on the team name in his honor.

“The Last Dance” tournament consists of 222 high school baseball teams in New Jersey, with only one to be crowned the winner at the end. Valley will have three games no matter what, but will need to win all three to advance to the round of sixteen.

I’m just excited that I can step on the field with [my teammates] one more time.”

— Sean Duffy

One aspect of the Valley Storm separates it from the rest: the coach.

Unlike the rest of the teams in the tournament, the Valley Storm is not being led by a coach from PV – or even an adult. Lutz will be managing the team in addition to playing.

“Our district isn’t allowing any athletics to start until Aug. 3, so [PV baseball coaches Will] Lynch or [JJ] Moran couldn’t coach us because of that,” Lutz said. “My teammates trusted me to manage the team and they knew how badly I wanted to coach, too.”

“[Lutz] is always a great leader. He’s a good friend, but when it’s gametime, he’s fully plugged in,” teammate Sean Duffy said. “He makes decisions for the best of the team.”

“[Lutz] is just acting like a leader on the field, just like any other team has a leader,” teammate Wes Baronian said. “In that aspect, [his coaching title is] nothing out of the ordinary. He is just leading us on the field.”

“If you want to address something with the coach, it is addressing it with another player that you are familiar with, so [the environment] is a lot more relaxed,” teammate Mason Baronian said.

Duffy and Wes Baronian are two of many 2020 PV graduates on the team, as ten of the team’s thirteen players are members of the Class of 2020. The tournament will be the last time the 2020 graduates have the chance to play together.

“I’m just excited that I can step on the field with [my teammates] one more time,” Duffy said.

“I forgot what it was like to be in the dugout with [my teammates] and how electric it was,” Lutz said. “I’m just happy to be out there with my best friends.”

There are some regulations in place to try to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: umpires are calling balls and strikes from behind the pitcher’s mound instead of behind home plate, postgame handshakes have been banned, and fans are prohibited from touching foul balls.

After the cancellation of the high school spring sports season due to the pandemic, the team was ready to get back on the field together – especially the seniors.

“[Getting back on the field] was electric,” Duffy said. “The boys were excited to get back on the field together.”

“It was almost like a dream come true,” Wes Baronian said. “It was an unbelievable feeling to go back out there and get one last chance to play with my best friends.”

The Valley Storm defeated Ramsey 8-4 on Tuesday in its first official game, keeping the players’ hopes at winning the tournament alive.

“We were going into the season thinking we were going to win everything,” Mason Baronian said. “[This game] proved how good of a team we were going to be this year and hopefully we are going to be able to go deep into this tournament.”

The Valley storm consists of thirteen players, ten of whom are seniors who will be playing their last games with their teammates. (BJ McGrane)

Not only is Lutz the coach, but he also decided on the team’s roster. After including all of the seniors, selecting the final three players for the team was the first decision Lutz made as coach of the Storm.

“Of course I got the seniors, and then I went position by position, seeing what we needed,” Lutz said. “I thought to myself, ‘Who would be the best option to play [certain positions]?’ I thought this would [end up being] the varsity team [if the high school season was not cancelled].”

“[During] quarantine, Wes, Lutz, occasionally Duffy, [and I] went to the field to hit and field grounders almost every day,” Mason Baronian said. “We really got to know each other as players, and I think just from that, [Lutz] could see how I play, and he just felt confident putting me in there.”

It was an unbelievable feeling to go back out there and get one last chance to play with my best friends.”

— Wes Baronian

In Valley’s win over Ramsey, Wes Baronian handled the shortstop position, while Mason played third base. The brothers are savoring what could be the last few games they play together.

“I think it’s great, because of the fact that me and my brother got to play on the left side of the infield together,” Mason Baronian said. “It could be the last chance I have to play with him in my life, since he is going off to college.”

In his first game as coach and player, Lutz experienced some of the struggles that come with trying to balance both.

“Sometimes in-game situations can be tough, like knowing when to warm up pitchers, and knowing when to pull a pitcher,” Lutz said. “That’s not hard, but it’s something that you have to think about.”

Although Lutz is the coach, he knows that he might not be able to make every decision on his own, and may need help from some of his teammates.

“I’m making the decisions, but if I need help, I’ll always go to the core seniors and ask for their opinions,” Lutz said, citing Jake Williams, Ryan Sheehan, Sean Duffy, and Dan Scacchetti as the “core seniors.”

Valley is set to play Don Bosco Prep in both teams’ second game of the tournament after the DiamondBacks’ Tuesday night win over Cliffside Park. The Storm will look to take down Don Bosco Prep on the DiamondBacks home field on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.

For the seniors, having the chance to play with teammates one last time is a favorable turn of events after the cancellation of their senior season.

“It’s pretty surreal because after our season was cancelled I thought it was over. I thought I would never see any of my teammates again,” Wes Baronian said. “It felt just like what we would’ve had if we had a season.”