Updated with video

Up for challenge: Oceanside joins Medomak, Lincoln Little Leaguers to have ball

Children, young adults with developmental, physical disabilities enjoy time on diamond
By Ken Waltz and Mark Haskell | Jul 31, 2017
Photo by: Ken Waltz Oceanside's Evelyn Fairfield bats the ball off a tee during a Little League Challenger Division baseball game with Lincoln County on July 30 in Thomaston.

Thomaston — The smiles. Oh, the wide, joyous smiles.

That is what sticks with one first.

Then comes the realization the children on the field are having a ball, well, playing ball.

The scenes that unfold are heartwarming and inspirational — with a slight tinge of sadness.

For many youngsters, Little League is a rite of passage, as American as apple pie and the taste of victory often is just as sweet.

And for those who participate in the Midcoast's version of the Challenger League — comprised of three teams for players ages 4-22 (if the older players are still enrolled in school) — the mere opportunity to participate in an "official" game with bats, balls, gloves and helmets is a flavor they will likely savor forever.

The Challenger Division, simply put, is for children and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities. Those disabilities, of course, can vary and can include those of a physical, mental or emotional nature, or a collection of the three.

Thus, the children and younger adults savor each moment they get to swing a bat, throw the ball or run the bases. Just like all the other youngsters.

Click for photos from the July 30 Lincoln County and Oceanside game.

Click for photos from one of the 2016 Lincoln County and Medomak games.

Watch video below.

Last year, two area teams — Medomak Valley and Lincoln County — were up to the challenge. This year, a third — Oceanside — joined the ranks.

Lincoln County is for players in the Damariscotta and general Lincoln County areas, Medomak Valley for those from Waldoboro, Union, Washington, Friendship and Warren and Oceanside for those from Rockland, Thomaston, Spruce Head. St. George and surrounding towns.

Oceanside also has team members from the Camden-Rockport area. If an area/league does not support a Challenger program, those athletes may participate in another program. Oceanside is filled with many younger children this year, but looks to attract older players in the future and possibly even have two teams.

The summer Challenger season is nearly complete. The remaining game on the schedule will see Oceanside at Medomak Valley on Sunday, Aug. 13 at 4 p.m. on John Foster Field in Waldoboro.

Team members and "buddies" for Oceanside, sponsored by Hampton Inn and Suites in Thomaston, include Brian Farnham, Sophia Wilmot, Sebastian Wilmot, Evelyn Fairfield, Henry Fairfield, Malachi Fairfield, Paden Robbins, Trey Johnson, Madalynn Warner, Lillyanna Warner, Dawson Hillgrove Colette Black, Haley Black, Mackenzie Hobbs, Michael McCue, Silas Spear, Madison Dodge, Eden Butler, Alayna Marchessault, Brady Marchessault and Isabella Stasulis. The team is coached by Rose Butler, Heather Nelson, Kate Marchessault, Ashley Geel and Jesse Butler.

Team members and "buddies" for Lincoln County, sponsored by First National Bank, include Emmett Anderson, Danny Couch, Willy Couch, Cameron Holbrook, Anthony Angelico, Olivia Schwartzentruber, Ally Prior, Gannon Legere, Zachary Bubier, Connor Richards; Carlos Canny, Patrick Miner, Jack Duncan, Casey Duncan, Maddox Tilas, Cedar Cannon, Huckleberry Rees, Cedar Splaine, Cole Poland, Jack Culbertson, Maeva Culbertson, Connor Robertson, Gabe Hanley and Lyden Vanabshoven. The team is coached by Paul Miner, Paul Canny, Charles Culbertson and John Splaine.

The team list for Medomak Valley was unavailable.

The Challenger program has grown by leaps and bounds locally and worldwide as there currently are more than 30,000 athletes who participate each year, with more than 950 programs in operation in 10 countries around the world.

According to the official Little League website, the Challenger Division "was established in 1989 as a separate division of Little League to enable boys and girls with physical and mental challenges, ages 4-18, or up to age 22 if still enrolled in high school, to enjoy the game of baseball along with the millions of other children who participate in this sport worldwide."

Teams are set up according to abilities, rather than age, and can include as many as 15-20 players. Challenger games can be played as tee-ball games, coach pitch, player pitch, or a combination of the three.

In a Challenger game, each player gets a chance to bat. The side is retired when the offense has batted through the roster, or when a predetermined number of runs have been scored, or when three outs are recorded.

Little League recommends no score be kept during Challenger games. The Challenger players wear the same uniforms, shoulder patches and safety equipment as other Little League players.

The Challenger Division also has “buddies” for the players, who assist the Challenger players on the field, but whenever possible, encourage the players to bat and make plays themselves.

Each player has one or two buddies who aid them at the plate during hitting, running the bases or in the field. Batters hit off a tee, but, at some point, there may be players who can hit a pitched ball.

The ball used is an Incrediball from Easton, a squishy, 12-inch ball used for training, to reduce the potential for injury.

The buddies also connect with the Challenger athletes away from the games, often helping them work on their ball skills or simply being a friend.

Nelson said the program serves children with disabilities or challenges that make it difficult for them to access the regular season Little League.

While high school children help with the other area Challenger programs, Oceanside players are teamed with Little League players, or "buddies," who have volunteered their time and skill.

"The buddies stay with their players as they bat, help them run around the bases, help on the field, and so forth … with hopes that they’ll be able to fade their assistance more and more throughout the short season," Nelson said.

"It’s really amazing to see these typical children volunteer their time and incredible to see the children with disabilities get to experience what it’s like to be on a team and out on a baseball field," she said.

"We welcome with open arms the Oceanside Challenger team in 2017," Paul Miner said. "I am glad to see the program grow."

He said he hopes other District 2 Little Leagues, including Five Town of the Camden-Rockport area and Waldo County, will start Challenger programs

In the Midcoast, the league began last year, but only after then-Lincoln County Little League president Paul Miner had the idea come to him by chance in 2015 when his nephew, Daniel, was visiting from North Carolina.

“Our whole family was gathered at my mother’s house in Cumberland watching a Patriots game and at halftime all his cousins piled into the yard to reenact all the great football plays they just saw,” he said. “Well Daniel desperately wanted to play but he has Cerebral Palsy and can't walk yet. But he crawled out there and wanted to play. I could see in his eyes how badly he wanted to play with his cousins and run around so I put him on my back and he latched onto me and we played football with him on my back and the uncontrollable giggles of joy that flowed out of his mouth, just being a part of that backyard game was very moving. He was the happiest kid alive that day. So it just hit me like a ton of bricks, all I did was include him. A big light bulb went off in my mind. Is it really that easy I thought? Just include these kids?”

Miner said Ellsworth Little League was in its inaugural Challenger season that year and he took his family to a game and it was “the most meaningful game of Little League I have ever seen in my life.”

Even better than his family's trips to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

“These kids were living the dream," Miner said. "On the field they became Roger Clemens, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia. They acted like they were the greatest superstar players in the world and it was awesome. They hit a dribbler off the tee and raised their hands triumphantly in the air like they were World Series MVPs and it was just the best of times. I wanted to replicate that in our league in Damariscotta.”

Miner collaborated with then-Medomak Valley Little League president Bill Post and Paul Smeltzer on the idea — the latter of who became the Medomak Valley coach for the Challenger League — and “have had a fantastic time making this program come together.”

Perhaps fittingly, Miner's nephew, Daniel, now plays Challenger in St. Louis, Mo.

Courier Publications’ sports staff can be reached by email at sports@villagesoup.com or by phone at 594-4401.

Lincoln County at Oceanside Little League Challenger Division
Lincoln County at Oceanside Little League Challenger Division on July 30 in Thomaston. (Video by: Zack Miller of VStv)
Comments (3)
Posted by: Jody Daniello | Aug 01, 2017 21:23

Thankyou Ron Hawkes!!!

Posted by: Ron Hawkes | Aug 01, 2017 09:00

Jody Daniello, here is the info you need.

Posted by: Jody Daniello | Aug 01, 2017 08:26

This is wonderful. I really wish i knew how to get involved in this!! I have a autistic son that is going into 7th grade at oceanside middle this year. He would love this & get involved, with the kids! wonderful. Sincerely, Jody Daniello (Tyler Millay 7th grade oceanside middle)

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