Challenge Accepted - Community Comes Together to Bring Joy to Youth

Lisa Patrick

The Ashland Beacon


   Competitive sports are challenging for all children. But when a child has a disability, sometimes playing on a team with “typical” peers can prove to be just too much. That’s where the local Challenger League comes in, because every child deserves a chance to play sports.

   Amy McGuire excitedly shared that 43 children signed up to play in the Challenger basketball league this year, making it the biggest year yet for the league. They accept all youth up to the age of 21, as long as they are still in school.

   Paige Maze said that he started out just helping out because his son, Luke, started playing in the baseball league at Russell. He then joined Amy McGuire in helping with sign ups, and recruited Daniel Heaberlin to coach the Ashland team. The Russell team is coached by Frank and Betsy Caines and Scott Garrett. The basketball league starts playing the first week of December and their season is typically about eight games played on Saturday mornings.

   Coach Daniel Heaberlin said that Maze asked him to coach the Challenger league while at an Ashland football game. Maze told him that “you just got to make sure that all the kids are substituted in, make sure that they all make shots, and they all get the ball.” Heaberlin explained that when the kids “don’t have enough strength to get the ball into the basket, I’ll pick them up on my shoulders. That way, they are closer to the basket and they can get the ball in.” Heaberlin hopes that the league keeps growing because “these kids love getting up on Saturday morning and coming and doing this and getting a chance to play.” He would love to see it grow enough to offer more teams in the future.

   Pathways stepped in this year to partner with the Challenger League to assist with the financial burden. Last year, Pathways purchased the trophies for the league, and this year they made it possible for every child to receive a new uniform.

   McGuire’s vision for the league is that “everybody gets to play but also that the kids have time with their typically developing peers to help build those relationships.” Players from the Ashland basketball team were present at the game this past Saturday to help the team make their goals on the court. 

   Ashland senior Ethan Hudson said that “we try to come out as much as we can because seeing kids like this have fun like this and helping them out to do this really puts a smile on your face and gives you some perspective.”

   This year, the Challenger league included sign ups for students who were interested in cheerleading. According to Kathy Goble, the Ashland cheerleaders are required to do community service projects and she thought that helping the Challenger league cheerleaders would be a good way for them to earn their hours. Goble said, “we went the first time and they were hooked.” 

   There was only one Challenger cheerleader that showed up on Saturday morning, but Goble said that there are usually four to five at most of the games. She said that this is the first year, but she hopes that “it will catch on and there will be more students that want to come out. It’s a wonderful program,” she continued, for every type of student because “they see what life is like for some people and that not everyone gets to live life like they do.” Hayleigh Adkins and Chloe Frame were the two Ashland cheerleaders that showed up to help with the Challenger cheer team on Saturday and Goble said they have already asked if they can come back again.

   The Challenger teams started playing during half-time last year at the Ashland-Russell games last year at both gyms. They continued that tradition this year by playing at half-time this past Friday at Ashland. “It’s great to see the way that the community takes in these kids and just accepts them and the support that they show,” Paige Maze said. The majority of the children love playing for the bigger crowd even though “it is a lot of sensory overload for a lot of kids, but they all did great. They love being with the high school kids and that feeling of being just one of the kids.”

   Maze said that the “high school basketball teams have been really great at showing up,” although “getting high school kids out of bed at 9:00 on a Saturday morning is no easy task, but these guys are here week in and week out.” Maze said that the cheerleaders from Ashland show up every week too, even though they don’t even know whether a cheerleader will show up or not. “Without the support of the community, the volunteers that we have, and mostly the kids that show up and help, this would be much more difficult to do than what it is,” Maze said.

   Amy McGuire is currently working on making Challenger Sports a nonprofit organization. Currently, the Challenger League has a baseball league that is in its fifth year, with the basketball team joining about three years ago. McGuire has hopes to start a softball team and include more of the tri-state area in the Challenger League in the future.