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updated: 7/29/2013 10:38 AM

Local Challenger team will play in Little League World Series

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  • Coach Mark Johnson of West Dundee steadies Ryan Santiago, 10, of Lake in the Hills during a Challenger League team practice. Catching is Ed Hayes of Elgin, whose son, Will, 11, plays in the league for kids with special needs.

       Coach Mark Johnson of West Dundee steadies Ryan Santiago, 10, of Lake in the Hills during a Challenger League team practice. Catching is Ed Hayes of Elgin, whose son, Will, 11, plays in the league for kids with special needs.
    Photos by Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Matthew Williams, 11, middle, and Matthew Kennedy, 9, both of Bartlett, members of the Bartlett Challenger league, gather with partners at the end of practice. The all-inclusive team is for children with special needs.

       Matthew Williams, 11, middle, and Matthew Kennedy, 9, both of Bartlett, members of the Bartlett Challenger league, gather with partners at the end of practice. The all-inclusive team is for children with special needs.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, gets a baserunning assist from dad Gary during a Challenger practice. Kayla and 14 other members from three other Challenger leagues will be heading to the Little League World Series Aug. 24.

       Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, gets a baserunning assist from dad Gary during a Challenger practice. Kayla and 14 other members from three other Challenger leagues will be heading to the Little League World Series Aug. 24.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Derek Miles, 19, of Schaumburg is a star hitter in the Challenger league and a member of the team heading to the Little League World Series Aug 24.

       Derek Miles, 19, of Schaumburg is a star hitter in the Challenger league and a member of the team heading to the Little League World Series Aug 24.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Aidan Johnson, 16, of West Dundee tees up the ball for Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, one of 15 players picked for a special exhibition game at the Little League World Series Aug. 24 in Williamsport, Pa.

       Aidan Johnson, 16, of West Dundee tees up the ball for Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, one of 15 players picked for a special exhibition game at the Little League World Series Aug. 24 in Williamsport, Pa.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Coach Mark Johnson gets a low five as player Ryan Santiago, 10, of Lake in the Hills, hits the plate as helper Mike Miles of Schaumburg guides him.

       Coach Mark Johnson gets a low five as player Ryan Santiago, 10, of Lake in the Hills, hits the plate as helper Mike Miles of Schaumburg guides him.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Aidan Johnson, 16, of West Dundee tees up the ball for player Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, who will be playing on "Challenge Saturday" at the Little League World Series Aug. 24, in Williamsport, Pa.

       Aidan Johnson, 16, of West Dundee tees up the ball for player Kayla Graziano, 10, of Crystal Lake, who will be playing on "Challenge Saturday" at the Little League World Series Aug. 24, in Williamsport, Pa.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Jennifer Tranmer
jtranmer@dailyherald.com

Kayla Graziano sits patiently in the grass, proudly wearing her bright orange baseball shirt, while her mother Deborah straps on her leg brace.

As a player in her fourth year in the Challenger Little League Division -- a league for kids with special needs, mental or physical -- she has been given the chance to play baseball, a chance local leagues couldn't offer.

"The only thing we could really find in town was some place where they played baseball, but it was more like practice," said Deborah Graziano of Crystal Lake.

Kayla, 10, wanted to play in real games, and this year she'll be playing in one heck of a game: She is one of 15 suburban players randomly selected from Illinois' District 13 Challenger League who will play an exhibition game Aug. 24 at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Only two leagues out of 900 worldwide are afforded such an opportunity.

"The kids will play in what they call Championship Saturday … in the big stadium in front of thousands of people," said Mark Johnson of West Dundee, one of the coaches who applied for the team to play. "This is their Little League World Series."

Out of about 45 applicants, the team was chosen because of recent expansions and their support of the mission of the Challenger Division, said Sam Ranck. director of the Little League Challenger Division.

"It was clear how hard the volunteers worked to offer every kid the chance to play real ball," he said, citing the creation of a league for Carpentersville, East Dundee and West Dundee in 2009 and a Woodstock league last year, prompting almost 100 more kids to sign up.

Their annual Challenger Jamboree was also a plus, Ranck said. The Sept. 7 celebration provides a day of food, games and, of course, baseball, for players and their families,

The District 13 Challenger Division sports players ages 4 to 22, if still in high school. Started in 1994 in Bartlett, the program has grown to 16 teams and about 165 players. In recent months, they added the Libertyville League. Coaches accept all kids, giving each player the chance to play in a game: every kid hits, every kid catches, every kid gets on base.

"It's not about what they can't do, it's about what they can do," Johnson said.

Matthew Williams, 11, of Schaumburg, whose father Paul runs the Bartlett Challenger League, cited several reasons for his excitement over next month's road game. "Being on TV ... getting to play in Williamsport in the World Series and meeting a lot of new people."

It means a lot to the parents, too.

"I don't know that I could have put Jonathan in a regular Little League program," said Gigi Fuhry of Cary, of her 6-year-old son.

"He has delays in social skills, and this is one of those things where it helped him to develop those skills in a safe environment," she says, describing how her once-shy son has flourished after two years.

Jean Boston of South Elgin, whose 13-year-old son Jeffrey plays, echoes the benefits of the program.

"These kids are creating this bond, and this friendship, which kids with special needs don't always have the opportunity," she said.

After practice, Kayla Graziano sits with her twin brother, Nathan, while they cool off. Growing up, they played tee ball together, and Kayla is happy to be playing ball with her brother again. In her four seasons, she says, she has learned an important lesson.

"You can't do what you didn't learn," she said.

• For more information on how to support the team and upcoming fundraisers, visit www.eteamz.com/illinoisdistrict13.

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