ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – From 5-year-olds to ages 50+, the Abilene Eastern Little League Challenger Division brings adaptive baseball to people with disabilities of all kinds to the Big Country.

Before the dew has dried, the words “play ball” echo through Cal Young Park every Saturday morning from March to May.

You can hear the “ping” of a baseball getting hit with a metal bat, clapping, cheering, stomps coming from the metal bleachers, and the public address announcer asking fans to rise to sing our national anthem.

All those familiar sounds mark the top of the first inning for Eastern Little League’s Challenger Division games, allowing anyone from five to 50+ years old with any disability to continue playing the game of baseball.

According to the official Little League website, the Challenger Division was formed in 1989, and it has been helping families in the Big Country enjoy America’s favorite pastime ever since.

“I always like to say every Saturday is the World Series,” said Shannon Couch. “They come out here with that enthusiasm every Saturday morning despite everything else that’s happening in their lives.”

Kelly and Shannon Couch took over the Challenger Division 23 years ago, enrolling their son Cory in the league. However, the league means more to them now than it ever has before.

“Cory passed away five years ago,” Mrs. Couch said as tears welled in her eyes. “We decided to continue the league because it’s needed, and this is our community.”

The Couches told KTAB/KRBC many of the kids Cory played with are now in the Senior League Challenger Division, which allows players to continue playing from 15 and older with no maximum age restriction.

Knowing Cory would still be playing, the Couches knew they had to carry his legacy on and continue being a bright spot for all the athletes who come. Their persistence has paid off, as well, watching the league not only grow, but triple in size just in the last year. Seeing just 30 players sign up last year and now, that number is up to 92.

“When we first started, he didn’t go to sleep – he was so excited,” Richard Sanchez gleamed.

Richard, along with his wife Marie, drive their son Halo in every Saturday from Hamlin so he can play ball. Richard told KTAB/KRBC the Challenger Division has made Halo truly feel like himself and has brought him out of his shell considerably since they joined.

“I get emotional, and you can see the other parents get emotional, as well,” Marie explained. “It’s hard not to get emotional because you feel like you’re in a safe place.” 

Truitt Barnhart plays for the Eastern Little League Rockhounds, and his mom said she’s seen his confidence grow since joining the league.

KTAB/KRBC asked Truitt if he was the best player on the field, to which he responded with a resounding “Yes!”

The Couches continued the league for moments like that with Truitt and the Sanchez family, seeing the smiles on kids’ faces as they field a ground ball or hit a line drive past the pitcher.

“They are more than just their disability,” Mrs. Couch said, “there’s something about baseball that brings out the good and everybody.”

The Challenger Division hosts games every Saturday morning from March to May at Cal Young Park. The youngsters begin playing at 8:30 and the senior circuit begins playing at 11:00.

To join the Challenger Division, visit their website or contact Eastern Little League President Thomas Martinez via their Facebook page.