By Laura Hayes

(Note: This article was originally published 6/30/22 in the Community Advocate)

NORTHBOROUGH – Gathered under the lights at Casey Field in Northborough last week, Shrewsbury and Northborough’s Challenger Baseball teams faced off.

Taking place last Thursday, the game marked the first time the teams have played at night under the lights.

When the players arrived, they had huge smiles and were ready to play.

“Playing a night game – a game under the lights is huge,” said Shrewsbury Coach Chip Collins. “It just means so much.”

Region’s Challenger Division dates back 8 years

Founded in 1989, Little League Challenger is an adaptive program for players with intellectual and physical challenges.

Shrewsbury’s Challenger Division was started back in 2014. Last week’s game then featured older players who have been playing since the beginning.

Camden Chenevert initially played on Collins’ tee ball coach pitch team in Shrewsbury Little League.

“I convinced his mom and dad to let him play on my team,” Collins recalled. “We let him come up, hit off the tee, do the buddy thing and run around the bases.”

Chenevert played on the team for a couple more years until the little league turned into what Collins described as a little more competitive baseball.

“When he aged out, we couldn’t figure out how to make baseball fun for him while still being able to be safe,” Camden’s mother, Lauren, said.

So, Challenger was started in Shrewsbury.

Lauren wanted to include their friends from school.

“It was a great opportunity to bring everybody in the community together,” she said.

The community in Shrewsbury Little League was “amazing” because the kids supported Camden, Lauren said.

“We wanted everybody to feel that kind of love in the community,” she said.

How Challenger works

In the Challenger program, players are matched with a volunteer buddy.

The buddies are usually a middle or high school student who is there to help the players.

That can involve helping guide players as they run the bases. As Collins described it, a lot of the work of a buddy involves socialization.

For buddies, the commitment is an important one. Last week, middle school aged buddies gathered for their Challenger game immediately after games and practices.

“They’re invested into it just as much as the coaches are,” Collins said.

As Collins and the Cheneverts were looking to start the Challenger League in Shrewsbury, so was Northborough.

Coach Jim Furlong said Northborough had 12 players in their first year.

Now, the Northborough and Shrewsbury teams play against other groups in Westborough and Grafton on Saturdays.

Between the four towns, Collins estimated that there are about 100 players who play throughout the season.

“I love the looks on the kids’ faces,” Furlong said. “I love the intensity. They’re all ball players, and they’re here to play.”

“I love to watch it,” he continued. “I love when there’s a play made.”

Ryan Summers, who played for the Northborough team, has been playing for eight years.

“If you want to play baseball and you’re disabled, you can come play here,” Ryan said with the help of his sister. “It’s welcome to everybody.”

As the players came to bat, Furlong introduced them with nicknames like “Superman.”

Jayden Baez’s nickname is “Muscles.”

As his mom, Randi, explained it, one of the other coaches started using the “muscles” nickname, though it’s been interchangeable with “noodles.”

“He’s got the skinniest arms,” she said.

She continued, “But he just loves the muscles that he thinks he has. So, you say that and he gets so excited.”

It lights a fire under him, Randi said.

“I don’t think they get the typical opportunities that a lot of kids get – being under the lights at Shrewsbury High School or Algonquin or Grafton High School to play a game – and they hear their names called over the intercom,” Lauren said. “I think that’s something special for every kid.”

The players feel like this is their time and stage, which is important for any athlete to feel, she added.

While celebrating a milestone last week, Challenger organizers emphasize that this certainly will not be the last time local Challenger teams hold a night game under the lights.

“We’ll definitely do this every year for sure,” Furlong said. “It was magical.”