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Dec 12, 2014 Community Advocate Challenger basketball a big hit in Northborough

By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer

(l to r, front, standing) Sean Durkin, Will Corwin, Steve Summers, Will Iverson and (front, sitting,) Ryan Summers pose for a photo at the TD Garden center court with former Boston Celtics star Cedric Maxwell. (Photo/submitted)

Northborough – Basketballs slam against the hardwood floor. Kids yell with approval and clap their hands as a ball swishes through the net. Coaches give instructions, guide, demonstrate and explain. Members of the Northborough Challenger Basketball program follow their directions.  The gym at the Northborough Town Hall is buzzing with activity as parents watch from the bleachers.

At a recent practice, 19 players aged 6 to 20, wearing dark green team shirts, were helped by 19 buddies from the middle and high schools, wearing gray t-shirts with matching logos. The players have varying cognitive and physical disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, and a very rare skin condition called junctional epidermolysis bullosa.

The Challenger program runs for six weeks on Tuesday evenings at Town Hall. The younger players play first for 45 minutes, followed by the older youngsters. Nobody worries about the score. Everyone plays at whatever level they can manage.

“The kids love feeling they’re part of a team, and the buddies like to forge the relationships with all the kids,” explained Allie Lane, town recreation director. “We sent out an email to the community and got all 19 buddies in less than six hours and had to turn people away. It’s an amazing program that makes me realize why I do what I do. It just melts your heart to watch them. It’s a win-win for everyone; the parents are so happy.”

Lane started the league after some parents of special needs children approached her about a year ago.

“Their kids were playing baseball in a Challenger League, but they had to travel to Weston and Sturbridge,” she said. “They asked if we could start a Challenger League in Northborough.  I got together with Shrewsbury and Millbury and started a Division 5 Challenger League here.”

The program started with baseball in the spring with 29 players. It was so successful that basketball was added this fall. All funds have been donated by local businesses and the Fidrych Foundation, which raises money so that young people with disabilities have the opportunity to play sports. The five coaches, Jim Furlong, Sean Durkin, Terry Moynihan, Claudia Farrell and Marty Murphy are all volunteers. The game is modified for each child’s needs and is free for the families.

“My involvement in the program started when every time I would get together with the other coaches and reminisce about our glory days of coaching our oldest sons and daughters,” Furlong said. “We could never remember the score of a big game or who scored the most points, but always seemed to remember the player that was not expected to make the catch or shoot the basket. The time a player got his first and only hit or shot into the wrong basket.”

“This is what we always went back to. I have always rooted for the underdog and so I ‘selfishly’ coach to continue filling my memories with the great sports moments ahead,” he added. “I feel so fortunate to be around such great kids!” he added.

Deb Lemieux is the mother of 8-year-old Liam, who is autistic and plays both basketball and baseball. Luke Farrell, a 10 th-grader at Algonquin Regional High School, is Liam’s buddy.

“The program is fantastic,” she said. “It’s very well run. It’s very well organized. Liam looks forward to coming every week to see his buddy Luke.”

Luke’s mother, Claudia Farrell, is also a Challenger League baseball coach.

“It’s nice to see those kids who can’t compete in those leagues be able to play in a less competitive environment,” she said.

Another buddy, Emily Michaeles, who is a senior at Algonquin, added, “I want to give the kids an opportunity to have fun and learn.”

Recently several of the players and buddies, along with their families, attended a Boston Celtics game. The young players were thrilled when they were recognized at center court and got to meet members of the Celtics organization.

The highlight of the season is the final game. Awards and trophies go the team members, and gift certificates are passed out to the buddies.

Anyone who has a child with disabilities from Northborough or neighboring communities is welcome to participate. Information is available at the website under Challenger Program or by calling the Recreation Department at 508-393-5034.