Opening night of Challenger season a blast for all involved

Suzi Northup of the Storm gets a hit Tuesday during the Challenger baseball season opener at Bergman Field.

Opening night is special for the players in the Challenger Baseball program.

It’s the best practice of the season for the Mesa State College softball team.

Tuesday night at Bergman Field, the 11th season of the Challenger program opened, with the Mavericks eagerly lining up to be buddies for the special-needs players ages 8-21.

“We love it,” sophomore Kelsey McCoy said. “We love the interaction with the kids. It’s so great to actually get to know all of the wonderful kids that come here. My buddy was Cameron (Bennett), and it was his first year. He did a great job.”

In the bottom of the first inning, Cameron spotted his family in the stands and sprinted to the fence to say hello. After a few moments, McCoy coaxed him back into the game.

Area high school and college athletes volunteer to be “buddies” for the Challenger players, helping them with everything from the correct batting stance to fielding ground balls to running to the right base.

Tuesday’s season opener pitted the Muckdogs against the Storm, with everybody hitting and everybody scoring in a 20-20 tie.

Challenger organizer Carma Brown searched Web sites of minor league teams for the team names — and more importantly, for their shirts and caps.

The first four teams that had shirts available from youth small to adult large were selected.

The Bees and Diamond Jacks are the other Challenger teams this year.

The Mavericks’ softball team has been buddying up with Challenger players for five or six years, coach Kris Mort said.

Mort added to the festivities by grilling hot dogs and bratwursts for the players, who gobbled them down after a hard-played game. The Storm’s Seth Dunham went back for seconds, then thirds, and only his mother prevented him from having a fourth dog.

The game at Bergman Field has become the traditional season opener. After the game, the players and their buddies huddled around home plate for an enthusiastic rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Some of the Challenger players have been involved for years, others were in their first game and were a little shy at first, but warmed up as they got to know their buddies.

“We try to make it fun, just the fact that we can joke around,” said senior outfielder Jamie Prather, whose buddy, Rachel Goodrich, told her baseball was her favorite sport and shortstop was her favorite position.

“When they start dancing, we’ll start dancing with them. We try to make them feel comfortable and show them a good time.”

Players showed off their hitting skills, some facing live pitching, whether a Challenger player or a buddy was pitching, some opting to hit off a tee. And when it came time to cross home plate, more than one slid across with an ear-to-ear smile.

“I absolutely had a blast,” senior pitcher Alicia Neuschwanger said. “Finding (a friend) you can relate to is really enjoyable.”

Neuschwanger’s buddy, Keoneau Hyde, ran the bases his first at-bat, then played the rest of his game from his wheelchair. And when he was on the bases, he was in charge.

“He kept telling me ‘Go faster, old woman!’,’’ Neuschwanger said, laughing. “I hit a couple of bumps and thought I was going to knock him out of his chair.”

The Mavericks, who are coming off their first four-game series sweep of the season, have a long road trip this week to Silver City, N.M. No doubt a lot of the conversation on the bus will center around Tuesday’s game.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Prather said. “It kind of reminds you why you’re out here. It brings you back to reality.”


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