By Lauren Wanko
A baseball player warms up for a Sunday morning game while little boys practice their swing. And on a nearby field a teammate hits the ball and heads to first. All the athletes are part of the Freehold Area Challenger Sports program.
“We’re here to get 140 kids to be all stars,” said Director Alan Goldstein.
The regional sports program based in Freehold Township is for those with special needs. It all started 25 years ago. Goldstein was excited to learn that in 1989 Little League launched the Challenger Division for those with physical and mental challenges. Inspired, Goldstein created the all volunteer division for Western Monmouth County.
How does it feel to play baseball? “It feels awesome and fun.” said Samuel Goto.
Each player is paired with a buddy who assists athletes throughout the games.
What’s the best part about it for Goto? “Being with my buddy, John” he said.
John Cuneo isn’t just Sam’s buddy, they’ve become friends.
“I can joke with him and we can have a lot of fun together. And I learned that he’s also a good baseball player,” said Cuneo.
Goldstein says there’s a two year waiting list to become a buddy. The players range in age from three to 33. The munchkins enjoy the game as much as the older kids.
“I like it a lot because baseball is fun,” said Joshua Nichols.
“I like running around the bases,” Joe Orlando said.
Why is it so important for parent Joseph Orlando to have his son involved in the program? “Social interaction,” he said. “Baseball, it’s all good,” said parent Joseph Orlando.
Players have an opportunity to participate in three different sports throughout the year — soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. There are 11 baseball teams. They play at the Freehold Township Little League Complex and also travel to nearby towns.
“We’re trying to mirror what the typical kids are doing in everybody’s town,” said Goldstein.
Goldstein, a former special education teacher and school psychologist, remembers watching as students with special needs were teased at lunch. It’s something that always bothered him.
“A key to that is coming in for what I call the Monday morning lunch room conversations for kids. How did your team do this weekend? Did you score any goals? What position did you play? It was very important to me that my guys go to school on Monday and tell people that they were doing that,” said Goldstein.
The coaches also volunteer their time. For some their kids also play in the league.
“This is a great opportunity for them to get out and move around and actually have a lot of fun and learn the game,” said head coach Lloyd Frisher.
“It’s just nice to see them grow and improve because then they have more of those moments when they can be proud of themselves,” said assistant coach Matthew Linder.
“The kids, they come out, they want to compete, they want to be successful. To see them get a hit and the excitement that they have when they get a hit, that’s the benefit for me. It’s watching them and watching them really just having a grand time,” said head coach Greg Sosonka.
“It’s a lot of fun. It puts a smile on my face,” said coach Edward Cuneo.
Later this summer, a group of players will compete in the Little League Baseball World Series Challenger Division Exhibition Game. For now though, these athletes will keep practicing and playing until the end of June.