A celebration

Challenger games a life-changing experience for all involved

Owls Challenger player Delaney McLaughlin delivers a pitch Thursday as her buddy, Navarro (Texas) College player Grayson Lewis, looks on at Canyon View Park. Being a buddy for a Challenger game gives both the JUCO player and the Challenger player memories to last a lifetime.

Hannah Howe, a member of the Ironbirds Challenger team, runs to home plate with her buddy, Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College’s John Leopard, on Thursday during the Challenger games at Canyon View.

Before her game, Katie Petty gathered her teammates from the Lookouts and Midland (Texas) College into a circle. Then she hollered “Everybody in! Mr. Incredible on three!”

Everyone pushed their hands in and made the cheer.

Christy Richardson cheers. Watching her 14-year-old daughter playing baseball and having fun is special beyond words.

“I cry almost every game,” Richardson says.

Katie has autism and Down Syndrome, Christy explains. And the game of baseball has meant so much to Katie.

When Katie first joined the baseball team, Mom says she just sat in the grass and played by herself. Now Katie plays the game.

“She pitches, catches and hits the ball without a tee,” Christy says beaming with pride.

Fighting back tears and unable to stop smiling, Richardson says “It’s pretty awesome.”

With more than 50 kids with special needs coming together to play baseball, Thursday was a celebration at Canyon View Park Softball Complex. A celebration on every field, a celebration in the stands, a celebration of the human spirit.

Members of the Owls, Stars, Ironbirds and other Challenger Baseball teams ran hand-in-hand with their JUCO buddies to first base, to second, across home plate and chasing grounders on the field.

Smiles and fist bumps and pats on the back were plentiful as friends, family and parents snapped photos, cheered them on and celebrated a great day.

Shouts of encouragement echoed around the wind-blown complex. A true sight to behold.

Hunter Redman is a sophomore catcher for fifth-ranked Midland (Texas) College. But today, he’s Katie Petty’s buddy, and he will never forget this day.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s an honor to come out here with these kids,” Redman says taking Katie’s hand as they walk toward the field. “When coach told us about this, it was one of the things I couldn’t wait for. It’s just a great experience. It surpasses all my expectations.”

Wesley Rogers plays for Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.) College, the No. 1 ranked junior college baseball team in the nation.

On this day, the only No. 1 that matters to the tall, slender swift center fielder is 8-year-old Zander Lee — a bundle of pure energy and motion.

“I’m faster than him,” Zander says. The two just raced twice. Rogers smiles and gives a believable nod.

Rogers towers over his new buddy but the smiles are equal sizes.

Where Rogers goes, Zander is his shadow. When Zander bolts for the concession stand, Rogers scampers in his footsteps.

Buddies for today. Maybe buddies for life.

“It’s great meeting new friends like Zander,” Rogers says. “It brings you back to ground zero and it just reminds you that baseball is just a game. We are playing to win but it’s still just a game.”

Then Zander zips away and Rogers follows.

Brandon Landrie is a big powerful right-handed pitcher for Spartanburg with broad shoulders and a massive smile. He’s on the mound with his buddy, Gregory Beltram, helping him toss pitches.

“This is something amazing. I’m really glad that I got to have this experience,” Landrie says.

For Clint Wilson, a sophomore pitcher for Navarro (Texas) College, it’s his second time at the Challenger games and he has the same buddy this time.

Wilson came to Grand Junction two years ago and Thursday, he and his buddy made trips around the bases together, shagged grounders together, slapped high-fives and had a splendid day on the diamond.

Wilson, who had shoulder trouble last season and used a medical redshirt, was sure to prepare his teammates about what to expect.

“From Day One I was telling the guys about this and everybody was looking forward to it,” he says.

The second time at the Challenger games was just as special for Wilson.

“Just to see them play the game that we get to play everyday, and to see their faces and the parents’ faces, it’s just an incredible sight,” he says.

A sight to behold.

All Navarro College players wore the No. 5 on their jersey’s to support teammate Sterling Graves, who was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma cancer this season.

Gigi McLaughlin was cheering for two of her kids— Hayden and Delaney — as their Navarro buddies escorted them onto the field.

“It’s magical,” she says. “These players make such a special effort.”

She uses words like “patient, respectful and caring” to describe the JUCO players.

Watching these players — 18, 19, 20 years old — all those words seem to be perfect.

At every field posters tell the story: “Thank you! Midland College”; Thank you! Spartanburg”; “Thank you! Navarro College.”

And every JUCO player captures the story with their smiles, their caring attitudes and their words.

“It really has more of an impact on us than it does them. It’s life-changing for us,” Redman says as Katie tugs on his hand.

Life-changing for the young men who in the next few days hope to win a national championship, and hope to maybe play professional baseball in the future.

But on this day, they were just buddies getting some lessons in life.

On this day, there were no thoughts of a national championship, there were no thoughts of opponents and no thoughts of winning or losing.

On this day, playing the wonderful game of baseball with a buddy was all that mattered.

For Christy Richardson and other parents, family and friends, this day was life-changing, too.

“It’s an amazing moment, it’s a blessed moment, not every parent gets to have this moment,” she says.

Players from Navarro, Midland and Spartanburg Methodist were fortunate enough to enjoy some amazing moments on a special day.

Buddies for the day, memories for life.


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What a great program! What a great day!

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