Another great season for WLL’s Challenger Division

Sep 16, 2020 by

Published September 16, 2020

KEVIN BLAKE accepts his trophy from Challenger League organizers John and Maureen Koehler. (Paul Paglierani Photo)

By PAUL PAGLIERANI

WAKEFIELD — In addition to the usual fun, friendship, enthusiasm, and good sportsmanship that the Wakefield Little League Challenger Division is known to embody, a sense of normalcy was an important ingredient in this summer’s mix.

Aside from participants and spectators wearing masks, and witnessing fewer hugs and high-fives than in past seasons, Challenger baseball belied how unusual the summer of 2020 has been. Many thanks to division organizers John and Maureen Koehler, and their daughters Erin and Kathyrn, for maintaining the continuity of this great program in spite of a delayed start and a host of logistical hurdles to overcome. It was important to the Koehlers that Challenger League not be a COVID casualty, and all involved were happy for the spirited distraction from a tough year.

CONNOR REILLY celebrates a wonderful season with his father, Tim. (Erin Reilly Photo)

According to Erin and Tim Reilly, parents of 10-year-old Challenger athlete, Connor, “The Wakefield Challenger league has been a fantastic program for our son from the start, but it truly became the highlight of our week during these unprecedented times. Many programs for children with disabilities were cancelled due to the pandemic, so we were thrilled when Wakefield established safe protocols for our players, and we were able to move forward with the season.

“Connor adores the coaches and volunteers – including his older brother – who cheer on the kids and help them improve their batting and fielding skills. This program has proven invaluable to families like ours, and it is so wonderful to watch everyone having fun.”

Their numbers were fewer than in years’ past, but the dedicated group of players showed up Tuesdays and Saturdays in July and August with enthusiasm, often in heat and humidity reminding all why Little League is usually held in the spring. Maria Person, Molly Preston, Patrick Sweeney, Kevin Blake, Madison Loftus, Connor Reilly, and first timer Michael Fratto comprised the younger Challenger division. This season’s older division included Kevin O’Connor, Emma Buxton, Kaley Chiarelli, Aaron McNeil, TJ Malone, Jeremiah Doucette, James Kavanaugh, and Kevin Melendez, Jr., who regularly hit bombs from one field to the other, and occasionally into the far woods of Back Fernald.

No season would be complete without a year end celebration, and the Challenger League extravaganza was held on Front Fernald Field the morning of Saturday, Aug. 22. It was a perfect sunny and dry morning for baseball, and Emma Buxton sang the national anthem to start the game, fearlessly and beautifully going a cappella before a crowd of about 50.

Volunteer Mike Viselli did the play-by-play commentary from his ace sound system, and honored the players’ choices for walk-up music. Solid hits were made to tunes ranging from “Dancing Queen” (Molly Preston) to “Kickstart my Heart” (Patrick Sweeny), and TJ Malone, player and dancer extraordinaire, was “Rick Rolled”- at his own request- as he ran the bases after each of his successful turns at bat.

The older and younger divisions play together for the big day, merging into blue and red teams, and all players helped and encouraged both teammates and opponents. Kaley Chiarelli, one of Challenger’s veteran players and the older group’s team captain during the regular season, was a strong presence at the plate. She views the game on Fernald Field’s main diamond as the season’s highlight: “The game we play on the big field is the best. For that day, I have a saying: ‘Go big, or go home.’ We have a lot of fun.”

MOLLY PRESTON had a great season in the Wakefield Little League Challenger Division. (Courtesy Photo)

Other notable moments were Maria Person and Maddy Loftus both leaving their wheelchairs to stand at the plate to bat, and strong base running by Kevin O’Connor.

The only downside was that multiple hits by all players drastically raised the season ERAs of parent volunteer pitchers Vin Sylvia and Dan Blake. Ice cream sandwiches, trophy presentations, and pictures capped off a great end to an even better season.

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