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And they can all play ball

At first glance, it looked like any other Saturday morning Little League baseball game.

Four teams stood on two fields at the Sid Lickton Complex as the national anthem signaled their games were about to begin. The 42 proud youngsters clad in green, red, yellow or blue shirts and caps were ready for the first pitch.

But on the fields guiding them were parents, coaches, and 37 Pinellas County physical education teachers.

These players ages 5 to 18 are members of the Challenger Division of the Clearwater American Little League. They are mentally and physically challenged players whose disabilities include Down's syndrome, spina bifida, autism, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments and Tourette syndrome.

The teachers are enrolled in Adaptive Physical Education classes and were there to work with the parents and coaches to learn more about teaching students with disabilities.

Buck King of Largo said he has been coaching Little League for 30 years. The last two he has spent with the Challenger program.

"It is probably the most rewarding experience I have ever had in coaching baseball," he said.

As King spoke, 9-year-old player Brian Scheuerman ran to him and gave him a hug, which King returned.

"The kids are here just to enjoy themselves, no win or lose, they win every day," King said.

Brian, a third-grader at Belcher Elementary School in Clearwater, said he likes to bat the ball and catch. His dad, Challenger vice president Jim Scheuerman, said that what Brian really likes is the catcher's gear.

None of the players has to worry about striking out. They step up to the plate and keep swinging until they hit the ball. Some use a tee. Once they hit the ball, there are plenty of helpers waiting to assist them around the bases if they need it. With help or without, all the players get applause from the crowd when they reach home.

Adapted Physical Education specialist Debbie Maronic said some of the teachers in her classes were earning credit for recertification, and others were there to learn more about students with disabilities. She said many already teach students with disabilities.

Rick Campbell, a physical education teacher at Lealman Discovery School in St. Petersburg, said the Challenger program helps him learn what the kids go through, "and gives us ways to adapt to their needs."

Years ago, there might not have been a place for a player like Brian Scheuerman in Little League. But the Challenger program, which began in 1989, has become an important part of Little League across the country.

Pinellas County alone has a half-dozen Challenger programs, said District 12 administrator Bob Gibson. Most states have 12 to 15 programs, he said, and worldwide, about 26,000 children participate.

To play or volunteer

The Challenger Division teams play every Saturday at the Sid Lickton Complex in Clearwater from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The division is open to boys and girls ages 5 to 18 and to challenged students not yet 21 who are still in school. To sign up your child or to volunteer as a coach, call Jim Scheuerman at 441-9047 or Lou Caprara at 736-0502.

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