Mason Challenger League recieves boost from State Farm toward all-inclusive field

Raghav Raj | Staff Writer

With a lot of help from the community and a hefty contribution from State Farm, the Mason Challenger League is much closer to building its own field of dreams.

For nearly a decade, the Mason Challenger League has been offering physically and developmentally challenged kids between the ages of 5 and 18 a way to enjoy the authentic Little League experience with the primary goal of providing an environment that is specifically structured to accommodate the varying abilities of players.

In order to further this goal, the league has been applying for financial grants from State Farm’s Neighborhood Assist program, which provides funding for projects being done by local organizations across the country, for the past three years. This year, their efforts were successful as they were selected as one of the top 40 organizations to receive the $25,000 grant.

Susan Murdock, who has overseen the Challenger League as co-president for the nine years it has been running, attributed the league’s success in the grant program to “a wonderful show of community support.” 

The league was first selected by State Farm as one of 200 potential applicants of the 2000+ organizations that annually apply for the grant. From there, the league needed to win votes from the community over a ten-day period in order to place somewhere in the top 40 where they would receive the grant. 

“When we found out we made the top 200, we knew we needed a lot of people to vote for us, so we immediately turned to the community in Mason,” Murdock said. “[They] have been so essential to this league’s success.”

The first people Murdock reached out to in order to get the vote out were the head coaches of MHS’s softball and baseball programs, whose teams have been working on clinics with kids from the league for nearly seven years.

When the head coach of MHS softball, Lianne Muff, got the call from Murdock, she got to work right away. “Along with the baseball program, we decided to reach out to our current and former players & families so that they’d vote, whether it was through our team website or through Twitter,” Muff said. 

The coach also personally reached out to 60-70 alumni over text, encouraging them and their friends to vote for the league with which they have dedicated so much time and effort.

“Over seven years, we’ve had a lot of players involved with the challenger league, a lot of kids and a lot of alumni who spent time working with these kids,” said Muff. “It was just so fun to hear them say how much they loved the experience, and how they wanted to help in any way they could.”

Curt Bly, head coach of MHS baseball, agrees with the sentiment. “Our players have thoroughly enjoyed working alongside the softball program to provide an opportunity for kids with special needs to enjoy the game,” said Bly. “That’s what Challenger League is about: finding ways to support kids who otherwise may not have a platform to compete and have fun.”

One of these ways is to, quite literally, build an equal playing field for the players in the league. The $25,000 won by the Challenger League is going to be used as the starting point for a project to build three new baseball fields at Makino Park, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant park project that the city of Mason plans to open in the spring of 2021.

Murdock knows that the fields currently used by the league, usually at local parks such as Cottell and Heritage Oak, present a variety of challenges for the kids due to the fact that “these are dirt fields, which aren’t great for people who use wheelchairs or mobility devices, especially not when conditions like wind or rain are present.”

Accordingly, the new fields at Makino Park will be designed differently; of the three fields set to be built, two will have an artificial turf surface, and one will have a surface that’s more similar to a playground. 

Regardless, Murdock still wants the experience to resemble the traditional environment of the sport as genuinely as possible.

“We still want the fields to look as much like a real baseball field as possible,” says Murdock. “These surfaces make the fields more accessible so that they’re able to be used by anyone who wants to play on them.”

In total, the field is set to cost $1.5 million. According to Murdock, the fundraising seemed daunting at first — and even more so when COVID-19 canceled the spring season — but the State Farm grant has been a big morale boost for the league. 

“We got a little derailed in the spring, and we wondered how we’d ever catch up with funds,” she says. “But this opportunity came up, and we got it, and it’s really helping us start to move the program forward again, to pick up fundraising with grants and donations, and to start building the field.”

Above all else, Murdock is grateful for how close to a new field the kids have gotten, and how essential the Mason community has been to the league’s progress. 

“The only reason our league has been possible all these years is because of the support from our amazing community. In volunteering with us, in sponsoring us, in letting their kids play with us; our program is only as good as the community is, and we’re lucky that the community here has embraced these kids so much.”