Challenger Division games give Little League thrills to special athletes

Telegraph correspondentAugust 5, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Sunday’s Southeastern Little League Challenger Division doubleheader was a base-running, infield home run-hitting slugfest.

Never mind the foul lines got a little blurred and a few rules bent, each of the game’s two innings of play were filled with whole-hearted baseball with athletes intent on giving it their all for the love of the game -- without attention on who might be winning or losing.

Jen Colvin, Little League Southeastern Region director, said Challenger baseball is Little League’s way of giving any boy or girl 4 through 18, or through 22 if they’re still in school, a turn at bat despite physical or mental challenges.

She said Challenger games let players enjoy baseball by allowing various accommodations such as walkers or wheelchairs, partnering players with “buddies” from regular Little League and even making room for some creative umpiring.

She said it also allows players to get in on the friendship and camaraderie Little League offers.

Bob Breckenridge, in the stands watching his 12-year-old daughter Deseria play, couldn’t agree more.

“It’s exciting watching her play, doing well and having the time of her life while at the same time knowing it’s without the pressure to perform perfectly,” he said. “She loves it. Her brother played Little League and she was always out at the park anyway, so when they started Challenger Little League she was ready. And it’s not just about playing ball. She’s made a lot of friends she can relate to through the socialization it brings. It’s a great thing.”

Breckenridge had nothing but praise for Challenger coaches. He said they not only teach baseball and good character but are sensitive to player’s emotions and are willing to help them get through not playing well or confusion at certain aspects of a game.

Tar Heels coach Greg Stanley said it’s just a matter caring about the kids and getting to know them, including their mental and physical disabilities.

He said that comes from time with players and their parents on and off the field at gatherings like pool parties and movie nights hosted by him and his wife and fellow coach, Krystal.

“I’ll tell you what, though,” Stanley said, “it’s the parents that are invaluable. I’ve not had one player whose parent or caregiver hasn’t been involved and helped make the team a good experience. Their support through the season and at the games is really great to see.”

Whereas the two previous years of Challenger baseball at Southeastern field during softball and baseball region championships consisted of various teams from eight divisions, Sunday’s games were a local face-off between the Braves and Tar Heels from Warner Robins American Little League. Each team had representative from WRALL’s six regular season Challenger teams.

For both fans and players, enjoyment of the games was enhanced by the play-by-play chatter of 17-year-old field announcer C.J. Foster, of Hull.

Foster said he began as a Challenger volunteer by being a “buddy” for his brother Jacob before going on to announcing. He announced games last year for the Southeast Region and returned again this year with encouragement for players, smoothing over their blunders and frequently chastising umpires. His work helped fans keep up with what at times can be confusing Challenger action on the field.

“C.J. does a great job and keeps us in stitches with his comments,” Colvin said. “He’s a real asset. His district didn’t even bring a Challenger team to play this year, but he still came to take part. We were delighted.”

But the focus is always on the kids and giving them a good time. Challenger Braves first baseman Joel Williamson said organizers succeeded.

“Yeah, it was good,” he said after the game, grinning ear-to-ear. Asked about his favorite at bat during the game, he responded like any good Brave: “The home run -- that was the best.”

Following the doubleheader, Challenger players, their coaches and families were treated to a banquet at the Museum of Aviation.

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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