By MARK PATTON, SANTA BARBARA NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
UCSB and the Challenger Little Leaguers are starting their baseball seasons together, hand in hand.
The Gauchos, who will play their home-opener today against USF, gave the special-needs players of Challenger Baseball a skills clinic to prepare them for Saturday's Back to the Ball Fields Rally.
"Any chance we get to be around the Challenger crew, we want to take," said Matt Harvey, the Gauchos' assistant strength coach and co-camp coordinator. "The joy, passion and energy that they play with amazes and excites us all."
Saturday's rally at Girsh Park will include skills and activity stations, demonstration games, a Dos Pueblos High cheerleading exhibition, entertainment and lunch provided by the Northside Optimists Club.
Last year's Little League Challenger Division had 154 players from the Montalvo, Carpinteria Valley and Dos Pueblos Little Leagues. Lompoc has also signed up for this season.
The league serves those from age 5 through high school.
"We have steadily grown by a team or two each season - it truly is an amazing program," said Retta Slay, director for Challenger Baseball. "We adapt baseball to meet the needs of any child who, for whatever reason, cannot compete on the traditional teams.
"We have bright-minded kids whose bodies just won't allow them to safely play - braces, partial limbs, wheelchairs, legally blind, hearing impaired, short stature, etc."
Slay's own son, who has Down syndrome, is among the Challenger players.
"Their confidence is boosted and they are more likely to improve and be included at school and other sports and social opportunities," she said. "This is key to their ability to be successful in life."
Slay noted that local Little Leaguer Major Division teams typically come out in support.
"Every local public and private high school and college has volunteered on our ball fields during the spring as our buddies to fill in with our growing numbers," she said.
A cheerleading clinic inclusive of children both with and without disabilities will take place on Saturdays at Girsh Park from 11 a.m. to noon. Online registration is available at GoChallengers.org or at the ballpark on March 9.
Volunteers are still needed, with the regular league season starting March 2. Donations are also being sought to help fund scholarships for several Challengers "so no child is turned away," Slay said.
For more information, go to the website or call 681-9165.