SALT LAKE CITY — High school baseball is back this week, with all involved excited yet anxious on what exactly will unfold once play begins.

The Last Chance Baseball Championship will involve eight of the state’s top varsity programs in 6A and 10 more of the top programs from 5A classification. The teams will compete in pool play starting on Thursday and concluding on Saturday before moving on to double-elimination bracket play the following week.

No, it’s not an official UHSAA event along with being necessarily limited with regards to who is involved and the level of play relative to what varsity teams normally present at the end of the year. It’s all due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which short-circuited the prep baseball season just days after it began for most teams, leaving interested parties diligent to forge at least something for prep players, and particularly for the seniors.

“It will be more relaxed, at least that’s my approach. But yeah, we plan on competing the best way we can to make this as special and as memorable of an experience for the kids who had their season taken away.” — Timpanogos baseball coach Kim Nelson

If you don’t know exactly what to make of the tournament, then you’re certainly not alone.

“It’s just like everything else going on during this really weird time in our lives,” said American Fork coach Jared Ingersoll. “No one knows exactly what to expect with anything anymore, it seems like. But I feel this tournament offers some type of closure for our nine seniors who have worked so hard only to have their final year canceled.”

American Fork will compete with top programs such as defending 6A champion Pleasant Grove, along with Lone Peak, Bingham, Syracuse, Jordan, Copper Hills and Riverton. The 5A competition will feature Cottonwood and Timpanogos, the two teams which battled in last year’s championship, along with top programs such as Salem Hills, Maple Mountain and Spanish Fork.

The games will be held at various schools in Utah County with necessary precautions in place.

For Timpanogos coach Kim Nelson, he’s been one of the coaches working diligently to help put the tournament together, although he’s quick to lend credit elsewhere.

“There’s been a ton of work to get everything ready to go, and I have to credit my wife (Leslie Nelson) as being the one who has put in the time and effort from our end, at least,” Kim Nelson said. “She’s been working nonstop with the organizers while I’ve added my two bits here and there. There’s really been a lot of work to get this thing going. Believe me.”

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Heading the effort has been Mark Comer, whose son Chase plays for Lone Peak, along with Dan Higginson, who also has a son named Chase who plays for Salem Hills. Others helping head the effort have been Jay Beck and Rob Lamb, both of whom have kids who play for Lone Peak, and Matt Marziale, who is part of the Perfect Game organization.

As far as the response from players to participate, it’s been predictably enthusiastic.

“All seven of my seniors didn’t just respond immediately when asked to play in this tournament, but all of them did so with a lot of excitement,” Kim Nelson said. “It’s been a very, very long eight to nine weeks for everyone, and that definitely goes for our seniors who have been preparing a long time only to have their final seasons cancelled, and I’m sure that’s the case for everyone.”

“It’s been real tough to see, to be honest,” Ingersoll added. “The work put in by these kids starts early and they really dedicate themselves. So to go through all that, and not be able to have a final season — it’s just been really, really tough.”

What also may be tough, or more accurate rough, could very well be the level of play exhibited by the players upon taking the field this week.

Normally those same players would have experienced two months of fine-tuning their play before entering the final tournament in late May. But uncertainty whether they’d ever play again, mixed with no games being played has coaches involved anxious as to what exactly their players will show.

“It will be interesting. No doubt,” Ingersoll said. “It takes a whole season to get ready for the state tournament, it really does. The things you usually work out through the course of the year — none of the teams will have that, so it’s going to be a lot different in that way. But at the same time, I know a lot of the kids have been working very hard, so I think the baseball will be good.”

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Still, Ingersoll is viewing the tournament as a chance to compete and is focused on putting forth his team’s best product, as is Kim Nelson, although the approach won’t mirror that of a typical state tournament.

“It will be more relaxed, at least that’s my approach,” Kim Nelson said. “But yeah, we plan on competing the best way we can to make this as special and as memorable of an experience for the kids who had their season taken away.”

For Ingersoll, he largely agrees with Kim Nelson, while encouraging his kids to compete as hard as possible.

“You want to compete and be at your best with anything, and with this being the final opportunity for our seniors, the expectation is for them to compete and win this thing, if possible,” Ingersoll said. “Again, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect, but I’m just grateful these kids who have put in so much time have the opportunity to have at least something to maybe compensate for everything that was taken away from them.”

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