Hazleton has one of the oldest Challenger Divisions in Little League Baseball, and its years of commitment to the project have landed the league at the biggest showcase in youth sports.
Before the U.S. and International championship games are played Saturday in South Williamsport to determine the Little League Baseball World Series finalists, Challenger Division teams from Hazleton and Evansville, Ind., will get the day started at Lamade Stadium at 10:30 a.m.
The Challenger Division is for individuals 4-22 years old with physical and intellectual challenges.
Although a selection process is involved, rather than a series of tournaments, it is just as difficult, mathematically, for a Challenger team to make it to South Williamsport.
“We’ve been trying diligently for nine years to get there,” said Ed Shoepe, who has served as president of the Hazleton Little League for that length of time. “I didn’t know this, but there are 950 Challenger leagues throughout the countries that are involved in Little League Baseball. Only two of teams are chosen every year.
“So, if you do the math, two each year and they’re only doing it 30 years. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any league that gets here. You’ll never get to go back.”
The math comes out very similar to the process of the 16 Little League all-stars from about 7,000 around the world who play their way into the 11-day tournament each year.
Shoepe said the league has been going through the yearly application process, hoping to make this breakthrough.
“It’s hard,” Shoepe said. “I don’t know exactly what their process is on how they pick them. I know longevity is a key factor, the number of participants you have is a key factor.”
Hazleton has both.
Little League Baseball established the Challenger Division in 1989. Hazleton started in 1992 and has had the division for 27 consecutive years.
The late Ron Cray formed the league in 1992 and ran it until 2007. Jack Meluskey took it from there until 2014. Since then, Joe Drauschak has managed the teams with assistance from his wife, Jennifer.
The league had as many as 43 participants registered and is currently at 36. Not everyone can play each week, but Shoepe said more than 20 are there each week and are split into two teams for Saturday, 10 a.m. games.
Parents, coaches and buddies assist the players through a game that is played as close to regular baseball rules as the capabilities of the involved players allows.
For example, if a player is unable to field a position, Shoepe explained, his buddy may retrieve the ball and give it to the Challenger athlete to throw.
Teams in the Hazleton Little League for 12-year-old baseball players spend at least one game each summer on the field assisting with the Challenger Division.
Shoepe said some of the original Challenger Division members of the league remain from when it started in 1992. The Hazleton league still allows them to play, but because they are outside Little League’s 4-22 age range, they will not participate Saturday. Shoepe expects most to be in attendance at the game.
Once Hazleton learned it was selected, Shoepe said fundraising efforts were put in place to help the families travel to and stay in Williamsport in preparation for the morning game.