ST. PETERSBURG — There's no sleeping in on Saturday mornings for the Admiral Farragut Academy baseball team.
Instead, the varsity players head to Azalea Little League to assist the Challenger league. On this particular morning, Blue Jacket players pop out of the van as soon as it halts, making their way to one of two fields, then immediately exchange high-fives with a group of 25 players.
What once seemed like an early morning chore has become an outing Farragut players hate to miss.
"I wasn't too sure about this because I've never done anything like it before," sophomore outfielder Thomas Salomon said. "But after a couple weeks it got a lot better. Now I'm to the point where I love coming out and seeing the kids have fun."
Since January, members of the AFA baseball team have helped with the Challenger league, which is for players with physical or mental disabilities. At Azalea, players range in age from 4 to mid 30s.
Azalea started hosting the Challenger league in 1991. While past years have had as many as 70 players competing, league president Lee Fulmer said the average this season is 25 to 35.
"A lot of our kids come from the Nina Harris school (in Pinellas Park)," Fulmer said. "I'd say most of these kids have been with us for about six to 12 years."
This is the first season the Challenger league at Azalea has had a seasonlong volunteer such as Admiral Farragut.
AFA second-year coach Brian Cooke grew up playing at Azalea Little League, as did his son Bryce. He was hired too late to start a volunteer program with Challenger his first year, but in November he got with Fulmer and other board members to talk about participating this season.
In January, the AFA players came out for the first time, and they have returned every Saturday since, except for spring break.
"I always said that if I ever had the chance to coach in high school, I would do something like this," Cooke said. "As long as I'm coaching here, we'll be doing this."
Fulmer said other high schools have helped in the past. But not for an entire season.
"We've had volunteers come out for a week and they do a great job," Fulmer said. "But then they go away. These kids come back week after week after week. Our kids get to know them. They form bonds with them."
Azalea's Challenger games are played on two Little League-sized fields. There are only a few younger players, and Cooke and two of his players usually work with them. They practice hitting and running the bases.
Most of the action takes place on the second field. Players lob pitches to the batters. When they connect, they race to first base. Often, they also run to second, third and home while AFA players chase them. In most cases, the players barely miss the tag at home plate.
"We love seeing their smiles," freshman shortstop/outfielder Philip Rohm said. "They love to play baseball, and it's great seeing them have so much fun."
Cooke made the program mandatory so his players would have a commitment to the league. Now they say they would come no matter what.
"You would think that waking up at 8 o'clock in the morning (on a Saturday) would be really hard, but it's not,'' freshman utility player Beau Armstrong said. "You get up and start thinking that I get to make a little kid's day just a little bit better. They get to play baseball."
Added freshman second baseman Jack Lescarbeau: "When we first came out here, it was like a job. But now I enjoy coming out here so much."
Tim Scholz, vice president of the Challenger league at Azalea, said the Farragut volunteers are good for the players and the parents.
"It used to be that the parents had to run everything," said Scholz, whose son James is part of the program. "They were out there on the field with them. Now the parents can watch their kids play and see them having fun."
Since Admiral Farragut players could not attend the final game of the season due to prom, parents made a special cake to thank them for their four months of volunteering.
On Farragut's final day at Azalea, Lescarbeau extended his time with one of the Challenger players. Ryan Lilly was having his 10th birthday party at a local bowling alley.
"He invited me a couple weeks ago," Lescarbeau said. "I've buddied up with him from the beginning."
Admiral Farragut's players will soon disperse for the summer. But they expect to spend their Saturday mornings next spring with the Challenger players.
"I'm sure we'll end up doing it next year," sophomore pitcher/shortstop Bryce Cooke said.
"We'll definitely be doing it next year," Salomon added.
Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected]