Challenger League levels playing field for special needs players

Jordan Harris connects for a hit June 16 during the second inning of a Challenger Little League game at the Merryman Little League Fields in Woodstock.
Jordan Harris connects for a hit June 16 during the second inning of a Challenger Little League game at the Merryman Little League Fields in Woodstock.

Jordan Harris has me hooked before the first game starts.

Coach Rich Yelle points him out from afar, and I walk up to meet the 8-year-old from Crystal Lake whom I’m paired with for the next six weeks. It is May 5, a sun-filled Sunday and Game 1 of Woodstock’s Challenger Little League, a league for children with special needs that had its inaugural season a year ago.

I have signed on to be a “buddy,” and as such, I’m paired with a player to assist throughout the game – running with him around the bases, standing nearby to provide pointers when it’s our turn to take the field. We wear neon-yellow shirts. Jordan is in his Cardinals No. 7 jersey. His gray pants are pulled half the way up the red socks on his shins. His hat slightly pushes out his ears.

“Hey, how ya doing?” he asks after our introduction, sticking out his hand to shake mine.

We stand about 10 yards apart and play catch. Jordan handles most everything I toss to him, even though he’s just told me this is his first time playing baseball.

He throws well, too. Body elongated, right foot nudged a half foot forward from his left, he extends his arm straight up, then slingshots his forearm back and forward. The ball’s at my chest almost every time, but not quite, because every once in a while he rears back and flings something straight over my head, like he’s trying to tell me something.

“I can’t do it,” Jordan says when we’ve moved on to batting practice and he’s yet to connect on any of the first handful of balls I toss.

Then coach Yelle adjusts his bat, and two pitches later, Jordan rips a liner over my right shoulder.

“I did it!” he says. His smile is at full capacity, and I notice the same on the face of Yelle and Terry Harris, Jordan’s dad, who stands nearby while holding a camera.

My face is lit up, too. I can’t help it.

• • •

There wasn’t much hesitation on the part of Rochelle Donahue when the then-president of Woodstock Little League told her a person was needed to run a league for children with special needs.

Donahue, a stay-at-home mom since the birth of her son Jacob, 10, took the idea and ran with it. In this, the league’s second year, enrollment is up 14 players, and each of the four rosters is full.

Players have a broad spectrum of disabilities, physical and mental. Jacob Donahue played in a different Little League before Challenger, but his cerebral palsy limits the use of his right hand, and he struggled to keep up.

The league takes players of any range of special needs, with several carrying varying degrees of autism, Rochelle Donahue said. She and others recently provided tips for McHenry’s Little League organization to start a similar league, the only other one in the county.

“It means the world to them,” she said. “They get out there, and they get to put the uniform on, and they get to play a game.”

Still, I sense hesitation from some players in the early going. After the season, I ask Yelle about the motivations behind his involvement, and what he thinks it all means for the kids.

A father of six, Yelle has coached Little League for 18 years. Like Jacob Donahue, Yelle’s 11-year-old son, Cameron, started out in another league.

But Yelle walked up to the batter’s box one game to adjust Cam’s footing and noticed he was shaking with nerves. He pulled him from the league shortly thereafter, and then jumped on the opportunity to coach Challenger baseball. He had missed that father-son experience with Cam that coaching his other kids had offered.

But Yelle tells me that Cam, who is autistic and has an anxiety disorder, was slow to warm to the league. I’m shocked. I’d pegged Cam as one of the most outgoing, boisterous personalities in our dugout.

“The first year, I wasn’t so sure,” Yelle said. “He just kind of went through the motions. This year ... he’s racing his brother to first base, he’s hustling after the baseball. He’s having a great time with it.”

Veterans such as Cam rub off on their reserved teammates, and by midseason, Jordan, who has seemed unsure at times about this baseball stuff, is fully engaged, even when he’s in the dugout awaiting his turn.

His skill and knowledge of the game improve, too. Late in the season, we’re at first base when I try to feed him a couple of pointers.

“Come on, buddy,” Jordan says, responding in his usual soft, friendly tone. “Stop with all the funny stuff.”

• • •

Each game offers these moments, these faith-restoring, smile-inducing moments, displaying innocence and resurrecting it in those of us watching.

A girl, given bum legs, makes it happily from base to base, hand-in-hand with a young buddy. A friendly interaction between opposing players at first base or in the dugout among Cardinals.

“I didn’t know you got a home run!” Jordan told his teammate, Verrick Jones, in the dugout one game. Verrick stuck up his hand for a high-five as Jordan leaned forward, arms out, for a hug.

“High ... hug?” Verrick asked. They hugged.

The moments are everywhere. The pure, barrel-on-ball connection from the big boy on the Tigers with the home run swing. The excitement of a coach seeing improvement. The continual, stubborn disregard of the “no slide” rule.

One of my favorites comes via Jacob Donahue, who plays for the Cubs. During closing ceremonies, before they call players’ name to collect their medals from the mound, all four teams gather along the base paths for the national anthem.

One problem: Rochelle Donahue’s iPod won’t work. It’s not long before Jacob prances up to his mother, snatches the microphone and declares that plans have changed, and that we now will sing the anthem in unison, with him taking the lead.

It’s a hammed-up rendition from a boy with miles of personality. And it might be pitchy in places, but not a soul in the stands seems to mind.

• • •

I go most of the year without asking how much Jordan is enjoying this, but it seems to be on an upward trend.

After closing ceremonies June 23, after the rendition of the national anthem by Jacob, after the distribution of medals to proud kids, we’re sitting in the dugout when I ask him what he thinks about all this. He says he’ll be back next year, and that he’s excited for August, when he gets to travel – with a different buddy – to Pennsylvania to play at the Little League World Series.

“I love baseball,” he tells me, watching the game though the chain-link fence.

A couple of minutes before that conversation, when we walked in from playing outfield for the last time, a coach had implored Jordan to get a big hit next inning. Jordan had told the coach that he would, that he’d smack it “way out there,” pointing to right field.

To me, that seemed unlikely. Not because he doesn’t have the power – the boy can hit – but because his tendency has been to pull the ball toward the shortstop or hit it back at the pitcher.

It’s our turn, finally, and Jordan sets down his glove, removes his hat and squeezes into a helmet. I hand him his favorite bat, the purple and blue and aqua one that’s not too heavy, not too light.

Jordan prances to the batter’s box, digs in, and sure enough, smacks a grounder that squeezes through the infield and nestles, as he predicted, in the grass of right field.

Jordan Harris has called his shot, and he’s around the bases before I blink.

Challenger trip

Some players from the Woodstock Challenger League will get a chance to showcase their skills on ESPN3 at the Little League World Series in August.

Illinois District 13 – made up of Woodstock, Bartlett and the Dundee-based Tri-Cities – was selected to field a team for an exhibition game Aug.  24, the day of the LLWS championship in South Williamsport, Pa. The game precedes the U.S. championship and international championship games.

ESPN3 is an online streaming service provided by ESPN.

District 13 has put together a team of 15 players to face District 57 in Livermore, Calif. The two teams were picked from more than 900 Challenger leagues worldwide.

– Shawn Shinneman

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access nwherald.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.