Westminster Little League's Challenger Program rings in 2021 season

Westy LL hosts free adaptive baseball program for players with developmental challenges

Ryan Dunn
rdunn@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/26/21

It's opening day. The grass is freshly cut, the concession stands open, the base paths laid out in chalk — Tepper Field is ready for Opening Day. In a few moments, uniforms will be handed out, the …

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Westminster Little League's Challenger Program rings in 2021 season

Westy LL hosts free adaptive baseball program for players with developmental challenges

Posted

It's opening day.

The grass is freshly cut, the concession stands open, the base paths laid out in chalk — Tepper Field is ready for Opening Day. In a few moments, uniforms will be handed out, the national anthem will play, and players will take their place on the field; some of them in wheelchairs, others accompanied by aids — all giddy with excitement.

July 21 marked the inaugural Opening Day for Westminster Little League's Challenger Program; a nationwide initiative that began in 1989 as a way to provide individuals with physical and intellectual challenges a way to participate in Little League.

The program includes a Little League Challenger Program for players ages four to 22 and a Senior Challenger Program for players 15 and up. There are three Challenger Programs in Colorado; one hosted by Boulder Little League, one run by Northern Lights Little League in Thornton and Westminster Little League's.

Westminster Little League President Mark Pigg said that this is his first time running the Challenger Program, stating that his league took the program over from North Denver Little League. Pigg added that the program was slated to begin in the summer of 2020, but it - along with all other Westminster Little League activities — was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just decided to take it over from (North Denver),” said Pigg, “and so, we're actually running it for the first time this year. We were supposed to run it last year, but everything got cancelled. We're pretty encourage about how it's going so far. We've got about 20 kids registered so far. Every kid is always safe, and every kid gets to hit. It's really good to see those kids out there.”

Leveling the playing field

The Challenger Program convenes every Saturday until the end of August, hosting weekly games that typically see two teams cycle through their batting order twice. The program is free of charge to players and their families, with everything from uniforms to equipment covered by the League.

Dennis Walker, a long time Little League administrator, served as Westy's president and the district administrator before retiring. After he gave up from his administrative duties, Walker made the decision to start the United Rentals Little League Challenger Baseball Tournament, an annual golf tournament at Red Hawk Ridge Golf Course that benefits the Challenger Program.

“When I left Little League,” said Walker, “I made the decision that these kids are the ones that really need support. So, I decided to create a golf tournament, the proceeds of which only benefit the Challenger Kids. Now, we've been doing it for over 20 years and all the money raised goes to this program.

“This year, we sold out faster than we ever have,” Walker continued. “We'll raise somewhere around $15,000 or more. The money won't be due this year, it will now go to the kids next year. So, I'll tell Angie (Kogovsek) `Do not worry — and I want the parents to know, do not worry, because the tournament is sold out and we're guaranteed the money that your league will be able to continue next year.' So, we're always one year in advance.”

This year's tournament will be Aug. 18. Walker made a speech to the players and their families on Opening Day, announcing that the Challenger Program had secured the funding to continue next year. He added that the physical and mental challenges the Challenger players deal with makes the fundraising all the more important.

“Some of these people are very poor,” said Walker. “I can't even imagine the medical bills they have. Some of them don't get to go out to eat, so if we have a barbecue here, they can bring the whole family. Making sure they're getting taken care of, that's the bottom line."

While the funding for the Challenger Program is provided by the golf tournament, the operations of the program are handled by volunteers.

Angie Kogovsek's son was a Westy Little League player growing up, but once he graduated from the program, she felt compelled to help out on the administrative side.

“I made phone calls,” said Kogovsek, “trying to get the word out. We're hoping the word will spread and we'll get more players to enroll. A lot of the families are really helpful and really involved.”

Another volunteer, Brian Kite, said that he was glad Tepper Field now has the accessibility to host the Challenger Program.

“It allows everyone to have the experience that every kid should have,” said Kite. “We thought about doing this in years past, but with our facilities, we didn't quite have the accessibility that we have now.”

Pigg echoed Kite's sentiment, stating that the Challenger Program offers accessibility to a common youth pastime.

“It gives them a bit of normalcy,” Pigg said, “to actually get out on the field and participate in a sport. The kids just really love it, not being cooped up in the house or what have you, they're actually getting out and being active and they just really enjoy being out there on the field and wearing a baseball uniform and being on a team with some of their other buddies.”

Buddies

The Challenger Program also has a place for Westy's regular season players. Little League participants are invited to help out the Challenger players as buddies, helping them field balls, run the bases, and sometimes swing a bat.

“Challenger encourages the use of player buddies,” said Pigg, “What a player's buddy will do is assist one of the Challenger players to pick up the ball, or maybe if a kid's in a wheelchair, the buddy will push the wheelchair around the bases. That gives parents a chance to just sit in the bleachers and watch their kids instead of having to be with them all the time.”

One player had his brother as a buddy on Opening Day, helping him to navigate the base paths and stay alert in the outfield. Other Little League buddies helped shag balls and direct baserunners. All the while, parents were able to sit back and watch their kids take part in America's Pastime.

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