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Challenger League begins new season

By ErinPradia
April 14, 2012 at 9:04 p.m.
Updated April 13, 2012 at 11:14 p.m.

Caden Luna, 7, carefully watches the ball as he  pounds a hit into the infield on Saturday at the Challenged Athletes Dream Complex.

The children were all smiles as they were recognized individually during the Challenger League kickoff ceremony - showered by applause by family and friends as they ran between two pillars of colorful balloons topped with gold balloon stars.

Let the games begin.

Luna Villarreal, 5, appeared frightened when her 15-year-old brother, Marco Villarreal, first carried her out to home plate to swing at the ball.

A first-timer on the Challenger League special needs baseball team, Luna was up to bat during the inaugural game of the 2012 season.

Marco held her up to steady her in her ankle braces as they swung at the ball together.

A swing and a miss.

The littler girl who has cerebral palsy was next to tears as they prepared for the second pitch.

As the bat clinked against the ball, her face lit up.

Marco scooped up his little sister and carried her to first base - her face aglow.

Always smiling, Luna enjoys going to school where she gets along with other children and enjoys watching others play, said her mother Adriana Villarreal, 36, of Victoria.

Her father, Marco Villarreal, was unable to attend the game because of his work schedule.

Her brother Marco works with wood and enjoys fishing and hunting, but when it comes to baseball, it's a family activity and everyone pitches in.

Each of the children in the Challenger League gets to bat and run the bases.

"They wouldn't have those privileges on a regular team," said one of the mothers, Kimberly Rickman, 39. "It's neat to see. Children in walkers and wheelchairs will have a buddy that helps them bat and get around the bases."

Community members, family and friends volunteer as buddies to help the children hit the ball and run the bases.

"It's a very moving experience. It's really neat to see everyone out helping the team," Rickman said. "Without them, the kids wouldn't be able to play."

When Benjamin Jimenez, 6, wearing his green team shirt hit the ball, he held up his black shorts as he ran to first base. Benjamin has epilepsy, ADHD and ODD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

"He can't really handle a regular team," said his mother, Laura Garcia, 28, of Victoria. "He can't stay still long enough and he's always fidgeting."

Garcia appreciates an environment where her two sons with physical limitations are able to play sports.

"It is sad when your kids want to play sports and can't," Garcia said. "It is nice they can still come out and play."

Krystin Ortiz, president of the Challenger League, said the Little League division designed for special needs children never turns anyone away.

"We always accept new students," said Ortiz, who has a son in the league. "I don't care if there are only two games left in the season, we never turn a kid away."

The league has children ages 4 to 22 with various limitations and disabilities, Ortiz said.

The children are divided into two groups; minor league for ages 4 to 11 and major league for the older children.

"You'd be amazed at how much the children enjoy the social interaction and how much they learn," Ortiz said.

Steven Rickman, 13, who has autism, and is starting his second year of baseball with the Challenger League, was supported by his mother, Kimberly Rickman, and his grandparents, Derryl and Linda Rickman, all of Victoria. They regularly attend his baseball practices on Mondays and Tuesdays and all of his games.

"Baseball and basketball are his favorite sports, but he has also done soccer with Challenger League," Rickman said.

Rickman, who has performed as "Ziggy the Clown" for about 22 years, decided to wear her costume to her son's baseball game before making an appearance at a birthday party.

"I've been a clown longer than he's been alive," Rickman said. "Many of the children are familiar with Ziggy the Clown, so they were just beaming to see Ziggy come out to watch them play baseball."

In addition to sports, Steven loves creating things with Legos and conducting music. He said he was looking forward to eating a snow cone after the game.

Steven said his favorite position to play is shortstop. His buddy, Lauren Moreno, 17, stood next to him as he played shortstop Saturday. Steven took his baseball stance - legs spread, hands on his knees - ready for any ball that came his way.

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