Sparks Centennial is bringing the Challengers to Sparks. The Challenger Division is a separate division of Little League that allows boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to play baseball.
“From my perspective as president of the league, I think the one thing about our city tournament this year that’s probably the most exciting to me is we’re bringing in the Challenger kids,” Sparks Centennial president Steven Howe said. “Everything we’ve accomplished this year and everything we’ve done, when those kids get out there in their wheelchairs, that’s what I’m excited about. When our kids get to see those Challenger kids out there playing, regardless of their physical condition, that’s going to be the payoff for me. Because it takes everything a kid has said about not being able to go to practice and it invalidates it.
“These (Challenger) kids have every excuse in the world not to play, but they get to experience baseball at Golden Eagle in front of all those people. Everybody is going to be cheering for them, and there won’t be a dry eye in the stands.”
The Challenger Division is for kids ages 4-18, or up until 22 if he or she is still enrolled in high school. The division was established nationally in 1989 and now more than 30,000 kids play in over 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide.
Kathy Crawford has been Nevada’s District I coordinator for the Challenger Division almost since its inception.
Crawford got started with the league because her son, Kevin, is autistic. When the league formed, only two families showed up to the initial meeting. Crawford knew if her son was going to play baseball, she would have to do some recruiting. She was given the reins the second year of the program’s existence and she hasn’t let go.
“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of kids just blossom,” Crawford said. “Especially autistic kids, they come in very feisty and not wanting to do it. They observe and they learn. By the end of the season, they’re doing real well. The smiles on their faces, that’s why I keep doing it.”
Crawford has been doing it for 23 years. She’s watched the league grow from two teams to 87 active kids playing this year.
“If we get many more kids, I’m going to have to add two teams. We’re growing. It’s fabulous,” Crawford said.
The league covers all of District I, so kids from as far away as Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Gardnerville can play in the league. However, Carson started up its own Challenger league, so kids have a choice in which league they will play.
Because the league is run almost entirely on donations -- kids are charged a nominal $25 fee -- Crawford hopes that the exhibition game at Golden Eagle will help give exposure to the league. Sparks Centennial is already a sponsor of one of the league’s eight teams and she‘s very grateful for the help Sparks Centennial has provided.
In the Challenger Division, teams bat through the lineup and there are no outs or score.
Crawford said they do try to make the experience as close to regular Little League as possible. Kids get trophies and pins for participating. In the past three years, two All-Star teams have met at the District I All-Stars tournaments in Carson City.