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Just Another Two Teams, Not Just Another Game

Just Another Two Teams, Not Just Another Game

Two Challenger teams take the field at the Little League World Series—and shine

Challenger Division Logo

More than 30 games have been played at this year’s Little League World Series in South Williamsport. All but one have been nationally televised, but that doesn’t mean the one game went unnoticed.

Roughly 2,000 fans came out to watch Cherry Hill, N.J., take on Friendswood, Texas, in the Little League Challenger Game at Volunteer Stadium Saturday morning. Among the fans were members of the teams playing in the World Series, including all-stars from Canada, Panama, Germany, and Mexico, all of which cheered loudly for the challenger participants. What the fans saw was a powerful reminder of the true greatness of Little League—the ability to foster growth in a group of people through the pursuit of a common goal.

ABC News recently produced a story about the Little League Challenger Division that featured the Friendswood Little League Challenger players. View the story here: http://abcnews.go.com/WN/special-teams-competed-league-world-series-games-weekend/story?id=11514775

The common goal in the Challenger game is pursued in a slightly different manner than other Little League games. Each player on the field has access to a “buddy”, who can help players run the bases or field batted balls. This is because each player has specific physical or mental disabilities that make sports an uncommon pursuit for children like the Challengers.

“It’s just an amazing program for youngsters who normally wouldn’t have the chance to play sports, who might not understand all the rules, who might not understand the social implications of everything,” said Christy Carlson, who is the mother of Cherry Hill’s Eric Carlson and works with a non-profit autism awareness program in New Jersey. “It’s a chance to be part of America’s pastime.”

The Little League Challenger Division was established in 1989 to give kids with special needs that chance. Now, more than 30,000 children in over 900 Little Leagues participate around the world. The leagues are home to great joy, a gathering place for families to celebrate the gifts their children have been blessed with, where children can be accepted for who they are.

“It’s more their ability we’re celebrating than their disability,” said Carlson.

Over time, players can become skilled enough to play without a buddy. Friendswood’s Jason Wellen, 14, is one such participant. Wellen has played since Friendswood’s league began in 2004 but sees his career in the Challenger Division coming to a close.

“He’s kind of getting the idea that his time as a player is up,” said his dad Paul Wellen.

But even though Jason may retire from his playing days, he’s not done with the program that has meant so much to him for half of his young life.

“He wants to come back and help the other players who are now where he once was,” said the older Wellen.

Though parents and coaches generally cite each player’s first moments of on-field success as signature moments of shared joy, they also cherish the off-the-field effects Challenger baseball has on the childs’ lives.

“[It helps] making friendships and learning appropriate ways to get out and mingle with other people outside our community,” said Ann Short, who has taught in special education for 25 years and has coached in the Friendswood Challenger Division since its inception.

Paul Wellen noted the social skills that his child, who is autistic, has learned since joining the Challenger program.

“Simple things that my son Jason had trouble with when he started [were things] like waiting your turn in line, not being upset when you have to wait your turn in line—a lot of small things that you just take for granted that your children know, but it comes a little more difficult and more slow for those guys.”

Carlson agreed, stating that the mere nature of the game—fair and foul, safe and out—enhances the participants’ learning and development in social settings.

“There are rules in society; we have to learn them,” she said. “We have to learn social skills, to be able to work with other people. My child has autism, and usually children who are autistic can be in a world of their own or not be able to make friends easily. This is kind of a built-in friend support system.”

Short also raved about the effects the league has on children with special needs.

“I see more development out here [on the ballfield] than I do in the classroom,” said Short.

Short saw the best example of this when the players were being interviewed by the media about their trip to Williamsport.

“The interviews were fabulous,” said a beaming Short. “They just blossomed. Guys that we never thought would be that independent were able to carry on a conversation like everybody else about what it means to them. They came up with all the answers.”

The players aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience. Their families have developed a rich community with their friends at the ballpark.

“It brings us all together,” said Carlson. “We all have different challenges and face different things everyday but we’re able to come together as a community and as a group and say, ‘We support you.’”

“It’s almost as beneficial for the parents as it is the players,” said Short. “It gives them the freedom to allow the children to go play.”

Starting out, though, many parents have no idea what they’re getting their children—and themselves—into.

“Some of them aren’t as sure that [their children] can go out there and play ball,” added Short.

At practice, parents are allowed to go on the field and help their children, in addition to the buddies’ assistance. Most parents will be on the field the first day anyway, making sure their children are all right. However, that trend doesn’t last long.

“Once we get them out there and the parents see that these children can play ball like the other Little Leaguers, usually after a week they don’t even come on the field,” Short said. “They stay in the stands and mingle and have fun.”

Cameron White, a junior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is one of the reasons parents can take a back seat. He became a buddy in 2004 when the Friendswood league began.

“Once you’re out there you’re like, ‘OK, what do I do?’” White recalled. “I started talking to the players and next thing you know, you’re friends with them.”

The friendship doesn’t stop once the players and buddies step off the infield dirt. White fondly remembered his interactions with the Challenger players who also attended Friendswood High School.

“At first when I started doing this, no one really addressed them [in school],” he said. “Now it’s, ‘What are you doing? Challenger game?’ Then they come out, and next thing you know, everyone at school is giving them high fives.”

White is grateful that the gap has been bridged between the children who used to be ghosts for no reason and everyone else.

“They just want to be noticed, that’s all it is,” he said. “They’re just regular people.”

And White feels his dear friends on the team have returned the favor.

“Being a buddy is awesome,” he said. “Once you step on that field, I don’t know what it is, but you have a smile no matter what. You’re having a bad day, you go there.”

White and the rest of the Friendswood team sat in the stands at Lamade Stadium and watched the United States Championship in the Little League World Series. Occasionally, the Friendswood players would be asked for an autograph.

“For them to get this recognition now, they deserve it,” he said emphatically. “For them to experience this, it’s beyond words for me.”