This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of Portraits magazine.
An alumni couple started an adaptive baseball program in Bradford for special needs children that developed into so much more than giving the youngsters an opportunity to play ball.
Josh and Erin Harvey Bridge, who graduated in 2002 and 2003, respectively, started the Bradford Regional Little League Challenger program last summer, inspired by their daughter, Delaney, who played on the Warren County Youth Baseball and Softball Challenger team.
The Challenger organization is the International Little League’s adaptive baseball program for young athletes with intellectual or physical challenges and is available for children aged 4 to 18. Athletes 18 to 22 may also take part if they’re still enrolled in school.
Many of the young athletes for the program were recruited from CARE For Children, a nonprofit organization that helps to improve the lives of children of all abilities. The athletes had the opportunity to play an exhibition game at the Kessel Athletic Complex thanks to an invitation from Bret Butler, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation.
“Pitt-Bradford was gracious enough to let us use the field,” Erin Bridge said. “It’s handicap accessible, and the restrooms are right there.”
Butler said, “We wanted to provide the venue to do the best possible job we could to help them. Being a member of the community, we want to do as much as we can.”
During the exhibition game, the athletes received the adaptive equipment and support they needed to play and enjoy baseball. For example, “buddies” from Bradford Regional Little League were on hand to help the Challengers.
Delaney’s 12-year-old brother, Jonah, a Bradford Regional Little League player, helped in the dugout and the outfield. Delaney’s buddy and best friend on the field was Gabriela Carter.
“We are grateful for the support of the BRLL’s board of directors, youth athletes and their parents for allowing them to participate and help in this inclusive and team effort,” said Josh Bridge, who besides being Delaney and Jonah’s dad is also president of the Pitt-Bradford Alumni Association.
The Challenger exhibition game, Bridge said, “was a win-win, with the score ending up to be a lot to a lot.”
But, oftentimes in sports, timing is everything. And that was the case with the Challenger athletes, whose baseball experience turned into so much more than just hitting and catching balls and running the bases.
The Challenger game at Kessel Field followed the Pennsylvania Little League World Baseball State Tournament competition, where Hollidaysburg competed against Keystone to represent Pennsylvania in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament held in Bristol, Conn., which also happens to be the home of ESPN. Hollidaysburg would end up moving on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
“The timing was perfect for the Challengers to use Kessel Field as a showcase,” Butler said. “We were able to use that event to really promote the Challengers … A lot of positive forces came together to help the Challengers.”
As it turned out, the players on both Hollidaysburg and Keystone teams approached the Challenger players and offered to help them, forging what developed into a beautiful friendship.
“It was a total surprise,” Erin Bridge said.
What would have been a warm and fuzzy ending to a nice sports story turned out not to be the end at all. There were more surprises ahead.
In addition to befriending and helping the Challenger players, the Hollidaysburg team adopted the team’s slogan “Bull Power” that had been coined by player Carmine Calderone. As Hollidaysburg advanced to the World Series, the players used the slogan when they were interviewed on ESPN and spoke about their friendship with the Challenger players.
And, when ESPN broadcast promotional segments for the Little League World Series games, the network aired footage from the Challenger game in Bradford.
Nearly everyone in Bradford who saw that local footage was astounded, including 13-year-old Delaney, who saw herself on ESPN and couldn’t help smiling.
Butler, who was watching the Little League World Series game with his wife, had a similar reaction. “There on national TV, ESPN was talking about the Bradford Challengers. It was beautiful. My phone just started blowing up.”
To return the support they received, the Bridges traveled to Williamsport to watch their Hollidaysburg friends play in the World Series, along with a caravan of other fans and supporters from Bradford who brought signs representing Bradford.
Although Hollidaysburg lost against the Southwest division team from Pearland, Texas, it didn’t dampen the spirits of their Bradford friends who enjoyed the Williamsport venue. And, because of what happened at Kessel Field, Josh Bridge said his long-term goal for the Challenger program is to hold an exhibition game at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “Williamsport is an amazing atmosphere.” — Kate Day Sager