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June 15, 2014

HAVING A BALL: Clarksville Challengers fields a team of winners

CLARKSVILLE — Some players wheel to home plate, some get six pitches before bunting a ball and some run as many bases as they please.

It doesn’t look like a regular baseball game, but to the players of the Clarksville Challengers special needs team, it’s a chance to belong.

“They get to do the same thing as a Little League All-Star player gets to do because they get to hit the ball, they get to run the bases — they get to play ball. In their own way,” said Raetta Woody, mother of 22-year-old player Becca.

The Challengers’ games have no scores, no outs and no winners, said team Vice President Mickey Higdon.

“We just come out and have fun,” Higdon said.

The team started 24 years ago with just a handful of players and has grown to over 90 since then. Players range from ages 4 to over 70. Some have been on the team since the beginning.

“As they grew older, skills didn’t change,” Higdon said of the team’s first players. “So how do you tell them, ‘You can’t play anymore’? So we’ve kept them.”

The Little League Complex in Clarksville suits the team just fine. One field is made of rubberized mat over concrete to suit wheelchairs.

“If it rains, there’s no mud,” Higdon said. “The wheelchairs run right over it real easily.”

The Challengers play on three fields, and each individual team is coached by one of the players’ fathers.

Coach Bob Snyder, whose 34-year-old son Nathan joined the team when he was 10, has been with the team since it was formed.

“These kids here have more fun than, I guarantee you, any of these others because they just like to go out there and have a ball,” said Snyder, who has coached regular baseball.

He said he likes coaching the Challengers because he gets to be a lot more loose.

“They’re all my kids when they’re out there with me. And I love every one of them,” he said “It’s just unreal how much fun I have with these kids.”

The team relies on donations from the Horseshoe Foundation and other entities to operate, Higdon said. Players get drinks after every game and trophies and a banquet at the end of each two-month season.

Higdon said that belonging to the Clarksville Challengers team means a lot to its players.

“We’ve had people come over here when it’s been raining all day and I have to say, ‘Well we’re not going to play tonight.’ And they’ll say, ‘You don’t understand. They’ve been in their uniforms since they got up this morning,’” he said. “They look forward to it.”

Josh Washer, 23-year-old player, said he enjoys being part of the baseball team and running fast.

“I like it because the people are good sports,” he said.

Mike Barron, a 33-year-old player, said being a part of the team isn’t just about himself — it’s about the other players, too.

“Just being all you can be with handicapped people,” he said of why he likes being on the team.

Woody, who has been taking her daughter to games for 13 years from Crawford County, said it’s had a significant impact on their lives.

“The first time I [brought] her, she cried and didn’t want to play,” she said. “And when we got ready to leave she cried because she didn’t want to leave.”

The Clarksville Challengers has given her daughter more confidence in her abilities.

“If it wasn’t for [the coaches], my child wouldn’t be as happy as she is,” she said.

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David Bennett, Jeffersonville, is pictured at Riverview Village in Clarksville where he is undergoing rehabilitation after losing his leg due to diabetic complications. Bennett is a 1981 New Albany High School graduate, and was on the 1980 basketball team that finished the season with a 27-1 record.

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