As the only yeshiva day school participating in the Last Dance statewide tournament, the RKYHS varsity baseball team was ready to face its tough opponents. Indeed, after years of playing solely in a MYHSAL setting, the sheer magnitude of the tournament and emphasis on professional play were not easy pills for the team to swallow. In spite of the challenges, the experience afforded a sense of camaraderie and meaning to all of the players, especially the seniors.
Kushner, the fourth seed in its quad, was to face the first seed, Montclair High School, in its first game on Tuesday, July 14. From the beginning, Montclair was able to stave off most of Kushner’s offensive efforts, notably by catching one of Ilan Cohen’s impressive hits to left field with two players on base. Following some minor errors and consistent hitting on both sides, the game ended with a score of 9-3 in favor of Montclair to assure its place in the winner’s bracket against Montclair Kimberley Academy (third seed). While this game may have stolen Kushner’s chance at advancing in the tournament, the team remained level for the next game, where players were reminded of the tournament’s true purpose.
Kushner’s game against Bloomfield High School was held in Jersey City on Wednesday, July 15. This high school, which has nearly 10 times the number of students that Kushner has, was considered one of the more difficult opponents in Kushner’s pool play. Kushner started off against its pitcher, stringing together four hits and scoring four runs in the first inning. The rest of the game followed suit, with a relentless defensive performance from Kushner’s squad and electric base-running by players like Jonah “Turbo” Eisenberg. Kushner ended the game with a 9-2 victory, after solid pitching and all-around great hitting—20 hits, including three from Captain Josh “Shup” Shapiro and AJ Keiser. Pitcher Eli Fishbein silenced the opposing bats with five strikeouts in five innings––only letting up one run. Other standout performances included Jesse Koppel’s stellar defense at first base and his three hits, Eli “Swuss” Zuckerman’s monstrous double and Cohen’s huge hit to just a few feet before the fence for another double.
To cap off the amazing win and, as Shapiro said, “seal off the seniors’ high school baseball careers,” the tournament allotted time to pay tribute to the seniors after the game. At the end of the day, seniors were given special thanks for the leadership they displayed for the younger players, especially during these uncertain times.
Coach of RKYHS varsity Ani Ramos said, “We are led by our seniors who have had prior success and are willing to share their experiences and knowledge with the younger players. Their careers as far as playing against local high school teams are sadly over and we thanked them for their years of effort put forth to make Kushner a winning baseball program.”
The day ended with the team in a huddle, and each player was able to hear the inspiring words of the team’s four seniors as they reminisced about the last few seasons. While saddened by the loss of its final baseball season, Kushner’s win and overall valiant performance was a testament to the seniors’ perseverance.
Kushner’s third game was held the following day against Passaic Valley. Ending off the final game of pool play with a kiddush Hashem, the team allowed Frisch graduate Jacob Hershenov to play on its team. “Because Frisch’s season was canceled and they did not participate in this tournament,” Eisenberg explained, “we decided to add him to the roster today and he pitched great for two innings.” Aside from some mental mistakes and throwing errors, Kushner had a solid game, although it left the diamond with a 4-1 loss.
Ramos said, “Our strength was in defense and it showed particularly during these last two games played on turf since we’ve made good use of the new turf field behind our school. In addition to outstanding diving catches by AJ Keiser in center field and Jesse Koppel, both Joshua and Jacob Shapiro dominated second base and shortstop. I also felt Ilan Cohen was the best catcher on the field during all three games we played.”
The tournament continued with a contested game between Montclair and Seton Hall Prep, where Montclair won the region and advanced.
Despite being eliminated, Kushner’s participation as the only yeshiva day school was remarkable. Players agreed that their performance was proof that yeshiva league baseball teams can compete with public schools—similar to Kushner’s vastly successful wrestling program.
Shapiro said, “At the end of the day we are all playing baseball. This tourney was a meaningful way to bring closure to my high school career and it was definitely great to put the spikes on one more time before hanging them up.”
The Last Dance tournament created an unmistakable sense of unity for New Jersey high schoolers. Who could have imagined that more than 220 teams could safely play in a baseball tournament amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
RKYHS Athletic Director Rabbi Kirsch said, “With all of this recent social tension and focus on inequality, it’s important for Jewish students to play with a mixed group of kids, unifying us in this time of isolation.”
While this year might be marked by confining quarantines, polarizing politics and social disconnects, New Jersey’s Last Dance World Series is proof that unity can always prevail.
Kushner will next participate in an exhibition match against Brookline, Massachusetts’ Maimonides School on August 3, where seniors will have a final chance to play together with their team.
Josh Gindi is a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and is interning at The Jewish Link this summer.