Darien Little League Challenger baseball: A real-life Field of Dreams

Little League Baseball is something that any kid growing up in the United States has heard of or been a part of in some way, shape or form. From t-ball to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, baseball has always been a part of the quintessential American childhood.

There are not many towns in the country, though, that have Little League figured out quite as well as Darien does. One of the largest leagues in the country, DLL has one of the finest facilities in New England at McGuane Field, and offers several different age groups for kids to play in and compete. One of DLL’s top programs is without question Challenger Baseball. Challenger offers a chance for kids with special needs to play organized baseball, something they may otherwise not have the opportunity to do. The program offers the kids the chance to be on a team, get a jersey, and experience all that playing a sport has to offer.

Darien’s Challenger program chapter was started by former DLL Commissioner Charlie Santos-Busch 18 years ago and has grown immensely since then. Currently, Darien’s Challenger league is the largest in Fairfield County and one of (if not) the largest in Connecticut.

The league is split into two teams, Lions Club and Recollectics. Kids ages about 5-10 play for the Lions Club, while kids ages roughly 10-18 play for Recollectics. There is a winter season that is held at the Town Hall gym where players are able to hone their skills and play other sports like basketball or floor hockey, running from January to March, while the regular season is held in the Spring from April to early June at Challenger Field at McGuane.

During the regular season, players will either have a practice or a game once every weekend for about an hour. Games are held against other towns that also have Challenger Programs such as Stamford or Fairfield, and once or twice a season each team has an away game at another town’s Little League facility. One of the highlights of the season is when both teams merge to play a night game under the lights in Stamford.

One of the most important parts of the Challenger Program are the many high school buddies that participate. There are about 40 high school students that are at every single game or practice, and are paired with an athlete who has special needs throughout their four years in high school.

Mike Donoghue became involved in the Challenger Program in 2010 and is now the head coach for both teams. His wife, Cece Donoghue, became involved in 2011 and is now one of the extremely important program coordinators for Challenger. Both of them put a huge amount of value on the experience that Challenger offers both the athletes and high school buddies involved.

Both of them have personal experience working with people who have special needs, and understand how important a strong relationship with a buddy can be. Mike grew up with a sister who has special needs, and Cece has a cousin who does as well. Cece always loves to see how committed the buddies are to helping their assigned athlete and becoming a true friend for them, saying, “It’s a profound experience to help someone throw or hit a ball, or any little thing, really. Some of our buddies are so committed with everything else going on like SAT’s or Prom; and are still able to partake in such a rewarding experience.”

High school buddies and the special needs athletes always seem to develop an extremely strong relationship. Buddies are normally paired with their athlete for all four years of high school, so they really get to know each other outside of just a baseball game once a weekend. Not only are the buddies a great help for keeping the athletes safe on the field and teaching the sport, the friendships they form are everlasting.

Cece says that the relationship the high school buddies develop over their time in the program will have a great effect on them later in life. As they grow more comfortable in the program, the Buddies become more confident around their athletes, and in turn more confident around all people with special needs. Cece notes that they will remember this experience down the road, “In the future when one of these students can look back on their experience in Challenger when hiring for a job and be more open to working with someone who may have a disability of some kind.”

Head coach Mike Donoghue said, “It’s great because our athletes are truly treated just like any other kid. 20 to 30 years ago, it seemed like people were more afraid. Today, people are much more accepting and willing to help.”

Mike and Cece have seen tangible growth over the years in both athletes, coaches, and Buddies. Specifically talking about athletes, Cece said, “We are seeing more diversity of children, including more disabilities, intellectually and physically.” Kids that are in any way challenged are eligible as athletes and this means that everyone is given an opportunity to be a part of a team and experience the sport.

Darien has such a vibrant program in large part due to the coaches involved. Challenger offers the chance for many parents to become involved. Both Tony Farren and Rich Brereton are two examples of parents who have been able to come back to DLL thanks to Challenger. Farren and Brereton were long time coaches and board members of the league when their children played, and Farren was even President of the league for several years. After years of valuable involvement, they have been able to stay in touch with the league as coaches for Challenger, both of them developing their own strong connections with the athletes and enjoying their time each Saturday morning just as much as the kids involved.

Many parents whose children have special needs have also become involved as coaches and program coordinators. Jessica Bayliss is a long time coordinator for the league and her son Andrew, who just finished eighth grade at Middlesex Middle School, is a player on the Recollectics team. Andrew’s older brother, Charlie, just graduated from Darien High and has been a buddy for four years, and their dad, John Bayliss, also helps out every week. Challenger has truly become a family affair for the entire Bayliss family.

Someone who has been involved in Challenger from the start and still helps out is Coach Dan Lovegrove, whose company sponsors the Recollectics team. Growing up, Dan saw how many children who may have been physically or developmentally challenged did not get the same opportunities in youth sports that many other kids got. Thanks to his experience, Dan puts a huge amount of value on what Challenger does for so many kids with special needs, allowing them to be a part of a team, play a sport, and just have fun.

Lovegrove has been a coach for Challenger since 1999, as he jokingly said, “I’ve been coaching Challenger longer than Bill Belichick has been coaching the Patriots.” Lovegrove explained why Challenger is such a special place for so many kids, saying, “Being on a team, wearing a uniform, getting a chance to play and just belonging gives each kid a happy face.”

Dan has loved his time with Challenger for the past 19 years, and believes that it can do so much for the kids playing in terms of self-confidence for the rest of their lives. Lovegrove explained this in a recent story, saying, “I was in the grocery store last week picking up dinner provisions when I heard this voice call out, ‘Mr. Lovegrove.’ I turn and see this familiar face. It is a veteran Challenger alumnus, now a Blue Wave high school sophomore, saying hello to me. It was his first day on the job and he was so proud that I saw him working there. When this kid was a player he was always so quiet. Not anymore.”

The biggest question anyone outside of Challenger may have is probably along the lines of: what makes you come back each year? When this question is posed to them, Mike and Cece Donoghue are very quick to explain why. Mike explained that the athletes on the field make it all worthwhile, as he said; “Seeing the reaction of our special needs athletes and seeing pure joy on their faces is huge. There is no score, the main idea is for everybody to have fun. It’s just an awesome thing to be a part of.” Cece said that seeing an athlete have any type of success is always a great moment for her, saying, “It’s truly breathtaking when we have a breakthrough, even if it is a little thing, we celebrate every success.”

The Challenger Program has clearly done some great things for special needs children, high school students, and many parents in town. If you are ever at McGuane on a Saturday morning,  stop by the Challenger Field and watch a game or a practice for a few minutes, it will remind you what youth sports are truly about. Coach Dan Lovegrove really described it perfectly, as he said, “Challenger baseball is a true field of dreams.”

Parents who are interested in Challenger for their own kids can reach out to Cece Donoghue. If you are a high school student and would like to become a Challenger Buddy, e-mail buddy coordinator Ryann Pegler (rpegler@optonline.net). For more contact information on any other challenger volunteers visit the Darien Little League website.