Challenger League players spread love of the game

WARNER ROBINS -- There was no ticket to Williamsport, Pa. riding on the outcome of Sunday’s games at Little League Southeast Park. There weren’t even bragging rights.

But neither that nor early afternoon rain dampened the spirit of the four teams participating in the Challenger Division doubleheader, held for the second straight year on the same field that will determine who represents the Southeast during the Little League World Series this month.

The Challenger Division is a way Little League ensures that anyone who wants to participate gets a chance to pick up a bat and a glove and step onto the baseball diamond, said Jen Colvin, the Little League Southeastern Region director, even if the child in question has special needs.

“Our program goes from 5-18 and includes softball, baseball and the Challenger leagues,” she said. “We want to be able to accommodate any player who wants to participate, and we want to expose all three divisions of our program.”

In fact, the Challenger Division boys and girls range from ages 6 to 23, all of whom are united by their love of the game.

Selena Burke, of Warner Robins, was there to cheer on her son, Nathan, 13, who suited up with the Challenger team from Marietta in the first game before joining his fellow Warner Robins players against a team from Viera Suntree, Fla. The teams from Marietta and Athens didn’t have enough players to fill out their lineups for the first game, so several Warner Robins players filled in.

“This is their chance to shine,” Selena Burke said. “He was really looking forward to this. (This game) is like the All-Star game for the other kids. It’s one more chance to play baseball before the season is over. They know it’s important, because they are playing on this field.”

Denise Watkins, of Perry, said her 23-year-old son, Rashun, has played in the Challenger Division for four years.

“He still looks forward to being out there,” she said. “He likes being around his peers, he likes playing ball. He likes being part of the game. I love it. I like watching to see him play.”

The games last two innings, and an official score isn’t kept even though officials keep track of runs on the scoreboard. The Challenger players fielded their positions on the diamond with the help of players from all of the eight teams competing in the Little League Baseball Southeastern Regional Tournament. For the “buddy” players, as they are called, it can be as rewarding an experience as it is for the Challenger players.

“It’s great,” said Leyton Pinckney, a 12-year-old member of the Warner Robins Little League squad representing Georgia. “You learn to be grateful. You see how much they love it, and you know what a gift it is to play.”

Leyton said it’s also a chance for the members of the eight state champions to bond with each other while serving as buddies.

“It calms us down and takes (the pressure) off (the games),” he said.

The buddies are only there to help out if a player drops a ball or to help them run in the right direction. Otherwise, the Challenger Division players had the chance to show off their own skill sets Sunday.

Warner Robins Challenger player Joel Williamson, 20, who also suited up with the Marietta team, brought the crowd to its feet during both his at-bats during the first game when he drilled a pair of long drives over the outfielders’ heads, clearing the bases each time and scoring two inside-the-park home runs.

“It feels good,” said Williamson, who added that his favorite part of the game was playing in the field. “I like it a lot. ... I hit my most home runs ever.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.