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Lyons: Ballplayers who’ve met the challenge

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2013 2:28 p.m. CDT

As rabid of an NHL fan as I’ve become over the past five years or so, baseball will always be my first sports love.

Some find it boring, and admittedly this year, it’s difficult to watch if you’re a Cubs or White Sox fan, but it’s still a beautiful game and still America’s pastime.

For many, there are father-son connections with baseball. My dad was an outstanding high school and college player, who at 70 still recruits high school baseball players. Unfortunately, the bat speed was not genetic, but I enjoyed playing as a kid.

From this summer’s Saturday Little League games, catching the White Sox as a kid with my dad and now going with my son, baseball has brought us many great memories. We’ve also gathered all three generations for occasional games.

That’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for the Challenger Division Little League program based in Woodstock. Every kid who wants to play should get a chance to swing a bat and put on a glove, and they do thanks to programs like this.

The Challenger Division started in 1989, and now more than 30,000 special needs kids get to participate on 900 teams across the nation, including in the Woodstock program that began last year.

We finally got to catch a Challenger Division game a few weeks ago at Sullivan Field in Emricson Park. Each of the Little League teams gets to play a special game on that carefully manicured field, and games at Sullivan are complete with an electronic scoreboard, a pregame national anthem and an announcer calling the game.

It took only a few innings of Challenger Division Cubs and Cardinals baseball to chase away the misery of several weeks of bad Major League Baseball and to rekindle my love for the game. Watching the joy these kids get as their Buddies encourage them around the bases is an awesome sight to behold.

What I didn’t notice until I talked to him later was that Northwest Herald reporter Shawn Shinneman was one of the fantastic Challenger Buddies who volunteers to help these kids play ball.

There’s certainly no sophomore slump for Woodstock’s Challenger Division. In January, they learned that the district, which includes Woodstock, Bartlett and Dundee/Carpentersville, was selected to play an exhibition game in August amid the events surrounding the Little League World Series. s

The Aug. 24 game will be played at Volunteer Stadium in Williamsport, Pa. The Illinois team will play a California Challenger team, and a portion of the game will be broadcast live on ESPN3. 

As an added bonus, the members of the Illinois Challenger team will be honored for their upcoming trip on June 29 before the White Sox game vs. the Cleveland Indians.

Donations are being solicited to help send the athletes and their families to Williamsport later this summer and are being accepted on the Woodstock Little League’s website at http://www.woodstocklittleleague.com.

Congratulations to the Challenger athletes, coaches, parents, Buddies and my friend Rochelle Donahue, who is Challenger Division director, on another great year.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH. 

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