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For disabled kids, a place to play ball

Robin Ahlers and Donald Ahlers, Jr. with their

Robin Ahlers and Donald Ahlers, Jr. with their two sons, Donald, 14 and Dale, 10, who will be playing for the Little League of the Islips' new Challenger Division. (May 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Donald and Robin Ahlers used to throw away Little League fliers that came to their East Islip home. Their two sons, both autistic, couldn't play, they said.

That will change Sunday when Donald, 14, and Dale, 10, step up to the plate at the first game of the Little League of the Islips' new Challenger Division, designed for children with physical and cognitive disabilities.

"A boy playing baseball is an American thing, and everyone should have that," said the elder Donald Ahlers.

Established by the national Little League, the Challenger Division, which has about 50 teams on Long Island, is open to boys and girls, ages 4 to 18, or up to age 22 if still enrolled in high school.

"This is a chance for children, regardless of their situation, to play baseball in a safe, healthy environment," said Bill McLoughlin, vice president of instructional baseball for the Little League of the Islips.

McLoughlin said the league started the Challenger Division in December after two parents, Frank Fritz and Kelly Piptone, both members of the East Islip Special Education PTA, spoke to its board. Piptone said the league will help socialize players and give them "a sense of being included." Parents will also gain a support group of "people out there worrying about the same things as you," she said.

Piptone's son, Jake, 10, who suffered brain damage after contracting meningitis, will play. "I want him to have the same experiences as my other children: sports, friends," she said.

The league's 20 players will be split into two teams, the Hurricanes and Cyclones, which will play 1 1/2-hour games against each other Sundays through mid-June, McLoughlin said. No scores will be kept and each player will be accompanied by a volunteer who will remain by their side at each step of the game, he said.

Participation, $20 per player per season, covers the cost of uniforms, equipment and insurance, officials said. Games will be played on fields without grass and with a wheelchair-accessible dugout, McLoughlin said. "The idea is for these children to come out to the field and have people cheer them on," he said.

The younger Donald Ahlers is up for the challenge. "I'm feeling like I'm ready to hit one ball and make it all the way around . . . [the bases]," he said.

Anyone interested in enrolling a child can email clubhouse@islipll.org.

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