Harrisonburg, Va., May 3, 2012-Junior outfielder Cole McInturff entered his freshman year at James Madison University as a declared sport and recreation management major. After participating in the Challenger Games with the baseball team and becoming the Challenger buddy for a fourth grade boy, McInturff changed his major to physical health education.
McInturff and his buddy, who is now in seventh grade, spent Wednesday evening at Eagle Field at Veterans Memorial Park with 50 other children and volunteers involved with the Challenger baseball program.
"Challenger is an official division of Little League baseball for children ages 5-18 who cannot safely play in other Little League divisions," explained Sue Hutchinson, one of the program's founders. Hutchinson and her husband Philip, as well as Jack and Becky Martin, are the two couples who created the program in the Bridgewater area.
"The four of us-the two couples-all worked with the Bridgewater Little League on an administrative level, which is how we learned about Challenger," shared Hutchinson. "When we left the administrative part, we said, 'We're going to have some fun' and started Challenger. There was definitely a need because otherwise, these children would not have the opportunity to play."
Challenger began in 2001 with 24 players on two teams and now involves over 50 children on four separate teams. The majority of the participating athletes are from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, while some also travel from Shenandoah County and other surrounding areas. The children are recruited through local special education teachers and school programs. When the season begins, each participating athlete is paired with one of 50 volunteers from the local community, including JMU students and faculty and local residents.
"This is my third time participating," said McInturff. "We started this my freshman year and I've had the same buddy for three years." Junior captain Bradley Shaban has participated in the program for the past two years and enjoys the opportunity to interact with the children. "Everyone on the team loves to come out here," said Shaban. "It is a great experience but we only get to do it once a year unfortunately. I wish we could do it more and help out more."
Shaban expressed, "Being able to be out here and interact with all of them, to forget about baseball and exams and to come out here and have a good time is great." McInturff shared the same sentiments, saying, "This is pretty much the only thing we do all year with the program. Just coming out here with all these guys is so much fun and it's also a get-away from our season a little bit."
McInturff and his buddy spent the evening pitching to one another and playing in the outfield before showcasing their skills during the chicken dance between the two innings of the game. "My buddy has taught me the secret to the chicken dance and we've been awesome ever since," said McInturff. The chicken dance is a highlight of the Challenger Games festivities for the participating athletes and their buddies, but comes as a fun intermission halfway through the game.
"It's not competitive," explained Hutchinson. "We have fun; we don't keep score and everyone bats every inning. We have a tee and a batting device that enables our children who have limited arm and hand strength to pull the string and hit the ball."
Eagle Field was home to two games last night as the Threshers and Stars competed in the 5 through 12 year olds division. The second game pitted the Volcanoes against the Thunder, during which the 12 through 18 year olds traveled through rotations with their JMU baseball buddy. "They love it," said Hutchinson. "The older group particularly enjoys the attention from the players and responds to that."
Of the participants involved with Challenger, four have remained with the program since its creation in 2001. One of the players sang the National Anthem a few weeks ago at the beginning game of the season and played in the older athletes game last night, explaining that his favorite part of playing is being in center field and spending time with his best friends who are also on the team.
Shaban reflected on the evening, saying, "It gives you a different outlook on life. It's humbling and you're grateful for everything you've been given. It's amazing to see how high their spirits are and how well everyone here works with them to play baseball."