Challenger League attracts thousands to community

John Stegeman Sports Editor

July 21, 2012


PDT Staff Writer

WHEELERSBURG — Thousands of people converged on the Gene Bennett Little League Fields in Wheelersburg on Saturday, as Challenger League teams from all over the state played in the state tournaments.

According to the 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. Today, more than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide.

In Ohio there are 11 Little League Divisions, each with their own Challenger League teams, and Wheelersburg is in District 11 — stretching-out to the borders of Athens, Cincinnati and Columbus, with 18 teams. Each year the Challenger League tournaments are held in a different city, inviting all of the teams from all of the districts in the state of Ohio.

“We’ve been trying for six years to get this tournament because it’s one of the largest Little League tournaments in the state,” said Don Rawlins, District 11 Administrator.

The event costs the local district about $25,000, which was raised entirely through community fundraisers and donations. Driving through town, and up Dogwood Ridge toward the ball fields, local businesses welcome the teams to Wheelersburg and wish them luck.

“We are fortunate in our district to have companies like AEP, Life Care, Life Ambulance, SOMC, that say, ‘what do you need?’ Ninety percent of what you see here is donated. There’s Valley Food, Lowes, the railroad, the Legion — the whole community. I’ve got a couple other (District Administrators) here, and they don’t know how we do it,” Rawlins said.

Nurses from Southern Ohio Medical Center volunteered to provide medical assistance, and the hospital’s community relations department created signs and programs for the event. All of the food was donated by Valley Foods and Pepsi, and was prepared by LifeCare — hot dogs, chicken, beans and a lot more for nearly 3,000 people.

“The Challenger League is interesting because the kids are out there playing ball. I don’t feel there is enough being done out there for the children in our community, as well as many other communities. Anytime you put something out there for the kids to do, I believe it’s great morale for the handicapped kids. It shows them that they are a vital part of our community,” said Doug Avery of Life Care Home Health.

The opening baseball ceremony began at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, introducing the teams from Toledo, Canton, Tallmadge, Barberton, and of course, Wheelersburg. The first pitch was tossed out by Caleb Lawson (the words “Home Run King” on the back of his team uniform) and caught by Jimmy Madden. Games last only three innings, and they do not count outs, or keep score. Each team bats their entire lineup rotation, and then they switch.

Between games, kids enjoyed playing on the inflatables, games, balloons and food.

Greg Sausman traveled with the Canton Pirates to bring his son, 9-year-old Joshua, to the tournament.

“It’s wonderful what this organization has done, and what they do for us and special needs. The things they have given to us and provided us is just tremendous. We are really blessed,” Sausman said. “Joshua has autism. He has high sensory disorder. But they do everything they can to make these kids comfortable.”

He said the league gives his son a purpose and teaches him focus and teamwork.

Little League Coach Michelle King said her son Tyler (age 15) enjoys playing in the league — but it means a lot to parents also, she said.

“The Challenger League allows our kids to be kids. To come out and play baseball with a positive atmosphere. We’re one big family. We support each other and we cheer each others kids on, and we know that the person sitting next to us knows what we’re going through,” King said.

Local baseball legend Al Oliver even showed up to support the kids on Saturday.

“I have always been supportive of young people and adults who are trying to do good things for young people. That’s the reason I chose to come out here today. I always enjoy seeing young people have fun. What’s great is when you look at these young people you wouldn’t think anything is wrong with them. Their attitudes are great. The problem is that we who are fairly healthy, after watching these young people, we should be the same way,” Oliver said.

He said some of the players out there would probably best him in a game of baseball.

“I know I can still hit, but I’ll guarantee you 90 percent of them can out-run me,” Oliver said.

After the games on Saturday, the kids and their families were all invited back to the SOMC Friends Center in Portsmouth for an evening dance and pizza. Games will continue at the Wheelersburg baseball fields today.

For more information about District 11 Little League or the Challenger League, find them online at district11littleleague.com.

Ryan Scott Ottney can be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 235, or rottney@heartlandpublications.com.