By Jeff Nations
Sarah Joliat wants to be certain that every child with special needs who wants to play ball has the chance to do just that in Shenandoah County.
In 2010, Joliat was instrumental in helping to found the initial Challenger Division Baseball league in the county. Although the Challenger league is under the umbrella of the Woodstock-Edinburg Little League for insurance purposes, Joliat said the team is open to all special-needs children in the county.
"There is a huge population of special-needs children in the county," said Joliat, who coaches the team among other duties associated with the Challenger league. "I think there's been a misconception that it was just the Woodstock-Edinburg Challenger Baseball Division, but it's open to all Shenandoah County residents. I think some people worry about the registration fee, that they can't afford it, but we make sure people can participate."
The Challenger Division, established in 1989 by Little League as a separate division to enable boys and girls with physical and mental challenges (ages 4-18, or up to 22 if still enrolled in high school) to "enjoy the game of baseball along with the millions of other children who participate in this sport worldwide." According to the Little League website, more than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions around the world.
In Shenandoah County, the Challenger Division fluctuated between 12 to 18 players this past season. With limited travel options and few other Challenger teams in the area, the Shenandoah team splits up to play games. All players get a chance to bat, play the field and score each inning. Challenger games don't keep score and generally are two or three innings in length.
"We haven't turned anyone away," Joliat said. "Our oldest is 23 and our youngest is 7. I would love to be able to get enough kids to have a younger group, say 5 or 6 to 11, and then an older group from 12 to whatever."
The Shenandoah County Challenger wrapped up its season on June 15, and utilized its customary "buddy" system with members of the Valley Baseball League's New Market Rebels pairing up with participants during the game. The Rebels and Central High School's softball team have been dedicated volunteers during the season.
"The Central softball team has been fantastic in coming out and mentoring for us," Joliat said. "And the New Market Rebels have been the other ones -- both of those groups have been a huge help with volunteering their time. It makes a huge, huge difference."
Joliat, who had previously volunteered with Challenger Division baseball in Fairfax, was surprised that no team existed in Shenandoah County before she helped found one. Since then, she's helped get a basketball league started for special-needs kids, and is hoping to add other sports like bowling if organizations and individuals can be found who are willing to donate time and money. Joliat would also like to see the Special Olympics come to Shenandoah County.
The goal is to give special-needs children the same opportunities to compete in athletics as anyone else.
"Our kids do participate in sports," Joliat said. "They can do that, they can be active. It's an important outlet outside of school for socialization and to be around other kids."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>