Kids are up to challenge

Newport Beach Little League Opening Day

Challenger Division for local children with disabilities debuts on NBLL opening day.

March 12, 2011|By Matt Szabo,
(Kent Treptow / Daily…)

NEWPORT BEACH — Rex Hudler has an energetic personality, so the "Wonder Dog" probably was a good choice for a guest speaker at Newport Beach Little League's opening day.

As Hudler arrived at Bonita Canyon Sports Park on Saturday, the voice of the 13-year Major League Baseball player and former Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim announcer already was tinged with excitement. That increased as he saw the kids in the teal jerseys sitting right in front of the microphone near home plate.

They're the Newport Beach Little League Tiger Sharks, and they represent the league's new Challenger Division. The Challenger Division is for players with physical and/or mental disabilities, and it's a cause that hits close to home for Hudler.

His oldest son Cade, 14, was born with Down syndrome and is a Challenger Division player himself in Tustin. Cade was with his father Saturday, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and throwing out the first pitch.


Hudler, who formed the non-profit Team Up for Down Syndrome with his wife Jennifer, has plenty of positive things to say about the new division. Teams in the Challenger Division also have "buddies" from the Majors Division who help them out during the game, should they need assistance.

"Those [buddies] end up seeing and knowing how blessed they are physically, that they can do all this stuff," Hudler said after speaking at the ceremony. "It's an education for them, and the importance for accepting differences is huge. These kids go to school, and now a lot of these special-needs kids are mainstreamed right in there with them. If that special-needs kid is getting picked on at school, his buddies can come in from Little League ball and say, 'Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, that's my friend! That's Cade! You can't mess with him!'

"We're really finding out that the Challenger [Division] goes so much further than just playing baseball. It goes into their schools and it permeates all of society … It makes both sides feel good about themselves."

The NBLL Challenger Division coordinator, Dewain Campbell, got the ball rolling in Newport Beach. He went to Tustin and saw how much fun the kids were having, so he approached league president Rick Dill. The league board embraced the idea, and Campbell also found plenty of interest in local schools.

Dill said the league has more than 900 players this year, on 74 different teams. The Tiger Sharks, managed by Chris Elliott, are a welcome addition.

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