One of the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks’ longest-running programs kicked off its 18th season with Opening Day on May 13 at Severna Park Middle School.
For a second consecutive year, the weather forced the Challenger Baseball festivities to move from Freedom Field at Lake Waterford Park to indoors at the school.
As they have for more than a decade of seasons, Severna Park High School (SPHS) baseball players were there to assist Challenger athletes with catching, batting and running the bases.
Anne Arundel County Challenger Baseball was created in 2006 to give adaptive athletes, of any age, the opportunity to learn baseball skills and teamwork as well as help them build social skills in a sports environment.
Terri Hamrick-Oeschger brought Challenger Baseball to the county. She’s also the program coordinator and coach.
Hamrick-Oeschger’s emotions are evident from the moment she sees the first Challenger athlete slip a bright-colored team T-shirt over his or her head. She said the joy and excitement shown on the faces of the players is what keeps her coming back year after year.
Hamrick-Oeschger also has a personal connection. Her son, Tyler, was also an adaptive baseball player until his death at the age of 15 in 2011.
“I get emotional because every time I see these players I think of Tyler and of the joy that Challenger Baseball brought him,” Hamrick-Oeschger said. “These kids are so excited to start playing. I feel that I am honoring his memory and that feels very good. They are all my children now.”
The program has grown to 80 adaptive athletes on five teams across the county. Games are played on fields in Pasadena and Annapolis.
Michelle Green is the grandparent of a Challenger athlete. Green said she’s seen her grandchild’s confidence, activity and willingness to socialize improve through participation in Challenger Baseball.
“We just love this program because the leaders really attend to the children, meet them where they are, and are very good with players of all levels,” Green said.
SPHS junior varsity baseball coach Dave Ferris, and his teams, have participated in Opening Day since the program’s inception. Ferris said spending the day with the Challenger Baseball players will always be his favorite part of the high school season.
“I know I get a lot out of it, and so do our guys,” Ferris said. “I want our players to understand they have a lot of advantages in life that some of these kids don’t have, and they should count their blessings every day.”
SPHS sophomore Miller Ricker was participating in his first Challenger Baseball Opening Day.
“I think this is a really cool experience to get to play with them and see how good they are,” Miller said. “Seeing these athletes playing baseball proves that anyone can do anything they want and anything they love. It’s a good feeling to help them and see how they look up to us.”
The friendships formed through baseball are exactly what Hamrick-Oeschger envisions for the broader community.
“Challenger Baseball helps to build friendships for life,” Hamrick-Oeschger said. “I hope I have helped create a way for our adaptive athletes to have a feeling that they are no different and they belong to something special. We are a community, a family.”
Amber Hayden is an adaptive athlete who uses a wheelchair.
“I love baseball, mostly being up to bat,” Amber said.
Amber’s gratitude was on display as she gazed up at SPHS freshman Luca Sillitti, whom she was paired with.
“Thank you so much!” Amber said. “I wouldn’t be here today if you weren’t here to help me.”
SPHS freshman Kyle Witte was participating for the first time.
“I think this is awesome, really fun,” Kyle said. “My cousin has special needs, too, and it’s really fun to see how happy [the Challenger players] are.”
Kyle Lowry is an adaptive athlete who loves playing baseball with different people. He’s been doing Challenger Baseball for the past seven years.
“Challenger Baseball means love and friendship to me,” Kyle said.