Kids are up to challenge

NEWPORT BEACH — Rex Hudler has an energetic personality, so the "Wonder Dog" probably was a good choice for a guest speaker at Newport Beach Little League's opening day.

As Hudler arrived at Bonita Canyon Sports Park on Saturday, the voice of the 13-year Major League Baseball player and former Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim announcer already was tinged with excitement. That increased as he saw the kids in the teal jerseys sitting right in front of the microphone near home plate.

They're the Newport Beach Little League Tiger Sharks, and they represent the league's new Challenger Division. The Challenger Division is for players with physical and/or mental disabilities, and it's a cause that hits close to home for Hudler.

His oldest son Cade, 14, was born with Down syndrome and is a Challenger Division player himself in Tustin. Cade was with his father Saturday, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and throwing out the first pitch.

Hudler, who formed the non-profit Team Up for Down Syndrome with his wife Jennifer, has plenty of positive things to say about the new division. Teams in the Challenger Division also have "buddies" from the Majors Division who help them out during the game, should they need assistance.

"Those [buddies] end up seeing and knowing how blessed they are physically, that they can do all this stuff," Hudler said after speaking at the ceremony. "It's an education for them, and the importance for accepting differences is huge. These kids go to school, and now a lot of these special-needs kids are mainstreamed right in there with them. If that special-needs kid is getting picked on at school, his buddies can come in from Little League ball and say, 'Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's my friend! That's Cade! You can't mess with him!'

"We're really finding out that the Challenger [Division] goes so much further than just playing baseball. It goes into their schools and it permeates all of society … It makes both sides feel good about themselves."

The NBLL Challenger Division coordinator, Dewain Campbell, got the ball rolling in Newport Beach. He went to Tustin and saw how much fun the kids were having, so he approached league president Rick Dill. The league board embraced the idea, and Campbell also found plenty of interest in local schools.

Dill said the league has more than 900 players this year, on 74 different teams. The Tiger Sharks, managed by Chris Elliott, are a welcome addition.

"Through word of mouth, in about a three-week period we went from two players to 16 players," Campbell said. "We kind of capped it at 16 this year. I think next year, it's very possible the league will have more than one challenger team."

All of the 16 players on the Tiger Sharks both bat and play the field in a coach-pitch format. There's only two innings in each game, which makes sense considering no outs are really recorded. If players go past their teammates on the base path, it's OK. If they can't hit the ball from the coach, that's all right too, because a tee is brought out.

Hudler finds inspiration in the Tiger Sharks and teams like them. He told the Little Leaguers in attendance that one of the most important things they can do is listen to their parents and teachers.

He said his mother told him to always stay positive, and it's something he's always carried with him.

"Life is tough, but you've got to stay positive," Hudler said. "It's so important that we don't pout, don't show anger."

With all of the smiles on display the Tiger Sharks definitely stayed positive later Saturday morning, in their first home game against the Rancho Niguel Junior Angels. Team mom Lee Anderson called the games "organized chaos," maybe without the organized part. But she wouldn't have it any other way for her son Christian, 9, who has autism. Christian is a catcher and team captain, and the Andersons embraced the chance to play closer to home after previously playing on challenger teams in Huntington Beach.

"It's an amazing deal for the kids," Lee Anderson said. "This league has just completely embraced the boys … We have all different kinds of disabilities [on the team]. We have Down syndrome and other medical conditions. But, you know, they just have so much fun."

The Tiger Sharks' Peyton Agne is also 9 and also has autism. But Amy Lechner smiles as well while watching her son play. Peyton said his favorite part of baseball is hitting. He likes sliding into home plate to the roar of the crowd.

In Saturday's game, Peyton's "buddy" was Cole Funsten of Boone Action Turf.

"He's gone to school with a lot of these kids for years," said Lechner, who lives in Corona del Mar. "It's really nice to be with kids that we know already and see all the time."

The age range varies on the Tiger Sharks; kids can be in the Challenger Division as long as they want. There is also a girl on the team, Julia Raack, whose nickname is "Hollywood."

On Saturday, the team was playing host to the Rancho Niguel Junior Angels. The two innings were plenty of fun for all of the Tiger Sharks. First baseman Daniel Gillman was one of the more advanced players, gobbling up every ball hit his way. On his first home run to left field, Gillman ran so fast that his buddy had a hard time keeping up with him.

Other players on the team include Wyatt Elliott, Colin McKenna, Gus Lapin, Connor Carone, Ezekiel Eampietro, Erik Fletcher, Parker Cope, Spencer Kettley, Jordan Rosenberg, Alex Acevedo, Samuel Lederman and Jared Honda.

After Lederman's solo home run in the bottom of the second, the game was over.

Every player who went to bat had scored a run.

Campbell, who acted as the announcer, said the final score was 28-28. Not so coincidentally, that was the same score as the Tiger Sharks' first game last weekend at Lake Forest.

"I think that's the way the scores will always be," Campbell said.

No losers here.

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