HomeMt Laurel NewsCreating new perspective on ‘traditional’ recreational sports

Creating new perspective on ‘traditional’ recreational sports

Challengers baseball division has place for those with disabilities.

High school and middle school students help players work on their batting at Laurel Acres baseball fields Sunday for the Mt. Laurel Challengers Division. (Special to the Sun/ Paul Bourke)

When James Shamah moved to Mt. Laurel, he knew he wanted his son to get involved in one of the township’s baseball programs. But the boy is on the autism spectrum, and by first grade, he could no longer keep up with his baseball teammates.  

“He’s a high-functioning autistic, he was just a little bit overmatched,”  Shamah recalled. “I realized at such a young age, he was no longer able to play baseball.” 

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Shamah recognized at the time that the township didn’t have sports programs for those with special needs. From that point on, he made it his goal to build a foundation for kids with disabilities to get involved in baseball, while also creating a safe environment for them to feel comfortable. 

Three years later, Shamah founded the Mt. Laurel Challengers Division, now part of the Babe Ruth Cal Ripken League. The program is free and offered to surrounding towns, with eligibility for kids ages 6 to 17.

“[Shamah] was the football coach for my son; he reached out to me to see if I was interested in coaching the Challengers program,” said Mike Volkmar. “I jumped at it in two seconds.” 

Shamah and Volkmar are the two head coaches for the Challengers and the program has two standard-division teams volunteering during practice, to give Shamah and Volkmar an extra hand on the field. 

This season, there are 20 players signed up, and the volunteers are middle-school students still learning baseball in a coaching atmosphere, and high-school students at the varsity level.

The goal is to provide the players with a basic foundation of baseball skills and teamwork. Both Shamah and Volkmar created a coaching plan that would most benefit kids with disabilities. 

“We do ground balls, we throw the ball, we do some running the bases,” Shamah noted. “Just last week, we had a fun segment where we practiced  stealing seconds.”

The main goal is keeping stress low and encouraging success. All players have an opportunity to bat every inning, and they all get to hit. Each player scores a run, and there’s continuous cheering to keep a positive atmosphere. 

As coaches, Shamah and Volkmar took the time to learn new techniques and instruct the players in the most cohesive way possible. For example, the coaches will break down the task of a drill into two steps instead of multiple instructions, giving the players the ability to retain the information easier. 

On top of that, the coaches created a buddy system, and that’s where the volunteers come into play. Each practice, a player will be assigned a buddy who is on one of the division teams. Their job is to help direct the player if needed, but also just be there to hang out with. 

“We have some younger Challenger kids, when we play catch, they throw to their buddy, the buddy will hand the player the ball and the player will throw to the other buddies,” Volkmar explained. “However, some of our older kids have expressed the ability to play catch like a regular high-school baseball team.” 

As a former college baseball player and coach, Volkmar applies his previous experience, pushing the players to their greatest ability and understanding their areas of limitation.  

For the buddies, being a part of the Challengers program is an opportunity not only to teach but learn from themselves and gain a different perspective on how they view traditional recreational sports. 

“The coaches believe this program has the potential to grow even bigger, where they’ll have more than just two division teams volunteer at practice,” Shamah noted. “I would like to grow it into maybe six to eight teams; I really like to get to the point where we’re playing some slightly competitive games, but again keep the stress level low.”

Shamah’s son is now 12 and part of the Challengers program. He loves going to baseball with his dad every Sunday. 

The Challengers Division meets from 2 to 3:30 p.m. every Sunday at Laurel Acres baseball fields. For more information, go to info@mtlaurelbaseball.com; to register, visits mtlaurelbaseball.com.  


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