As the sun set over Richard D. Santamaria Field on July 27, roars of cheering filled the air while the Cranston Challengers faced off against the Continental American Challengers of Warwick in their …
As the sun set over Richard D. Santamaria Field on July 27, roars of cheering filled the air while the Cranston Challengers faced off against the Continental American Challengers of Warwick in their season finale.
The Challenger Division, which is part of the Cranston West Little League, was established in 1989 to enable boys and girls with mental and physical disabilities to enjoy the game of baseball within a team setting.
Twenty players complete this year’s roster, ranging from ages 5 to 21 years old. The team is composed of boys and girls who live in Cranston who compete against other teams in their division from Warwick, Coventry and East Greenwich.
The fifth and final game of the season not only saw families and friends of players in the stands, but members of the community — and yes — a visit from Cali, the three-year-old Australian labradoodle service dog and member of the Cranston Police Department (CPD).
Coach Joe Corso, has been involved with the Challengers Division since 1998, when his son, Thomas, joined the team at seven years old.
“I think every little league in the country should have a challenger division,” said Corso.
The team not only provides players with a chance to participate in America’s pastime, but also an opportunity for social contact that many people with disabilities do not always receive.
The Challengers don’t just showcase their skills on the ballfields of Cranston either. Their experience has taken them to Fenway Park, most recently in 2018, on a trip that included a tour of the historic ballpark, batting practice sessions and even a matchup against the Red Sox prior to one of their games.
Rachel Hernandez, 20, is the agile first baseman for the Challengers and a slugger at the plate. She is also a Red Sox fan and follower of Andrew Benintendi. She describes herself as “the athlete in my family,” and enjoys the unexpectedness and focus required to play first base.
“I’m someone who likes to compete, someone who likes to lead,” said Hernandez.
Rachel’s biggest fan is her twin sister, Damaris, who attends all of her games. Both Rachel and Damaris have autism.
It’s good when kids feel included, you know, in a team setting,” said Leigh-Ann Hernandez, mother of Rachel and Damaris. “Just to feel that inclusion is such an important part of our kiddos who don’t normally get that.”
Amy Sencer, mother of Aiden, 18, had a difficult time putting into perspective what this team has meant for her son.
“It’s hard to put into words what it does for the kids. It’s amazing,” said Sencer.
Aiden has been playing for the Challengers for seven years. As a veteran on the team, he has taken some of his teammates under his wing, sometimes helping them on the basepath. Experiencing an environment that allows him to foster a leadership role and take others into consideration are just a few of the skills Aiden has been able to craft. His confidence has also seen a spike, as he has become involved with the Special Olympics and unified sports teams at Cranston High School West.
“He never would have had the confidence to do that if it wasn’t for this team,” Sencer said.
In addition to Corso’s established involvement with the program for over 20 years, many players and families have been drawn to the program by the efforts of Elementary Special Education Administrator Lisa Abbott. A lifelong Cranston resident, Abbott has worked for Cranston Public Schools for 38 years, serving in her current position for the past eight years.
Although advertised in the community, most of the buzz around the team is generated through informational emails that Corso sends to teachers and administrators within the school district. Abbott helps to promote the team also.
Registration for the Challenger Division opens in February, but Corso doesn’t close registration so families can continue to sign their kids up.
“We’ve had a real nice turnout over the past years, it’s really increased in popularity,” said Abbott.
Another attraction that certainly helps is the presence of Cali. She has been serving in the CPD since she was eight weeks old. She and her handler, Detective Mike Iacone, a 20 year member of the CPD, are frequent visitors to schools throughout the district. During the 2021-22 school year, Iacone and Cali made 82 classroom visits to schools in the community. Many of the players on the team are familiar with Cali from her stops to their schools.
Known for her soothing hugs, Cali provides a comfortable presence and creates a safe space for people with disabilities. In many cases, Cali helps children with disabilities to feel comfortable talking about their experiences in school, which can sometimes be difficult to discuss.
“She brings comfort to the kids and adults,” said Abbott. “If you’re having a bad day in school and Cali comes in, everyone is calm.”
Games for the Challenger Division are two innings, with each team getting an opportunity to bat and play the field. Once each player has had a chance to bat for one team, the inning ends and the team playing defense will come in to bat. Score is not kept and players are allowed to have buddies to help bat, run the bases and catch balls. Buddies include teammates, family members, friends and other players in Cranston West Little League. The season runs from June to July and is normally seven games long. Games are played once a week.
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