Rising to the Challenge: Coaches give back through Manchester Little League’s adaptive baseball program

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Story and photos by Stacy Harrison

Coaches Mason Gilmartin,  left, and Nick “Sully” Sullivan, center, with player Billy Petersen. Photo/Stacy Harrison

MANCHESTER, NH — Friends since their days playing baseball together at Memorial High School, Nick Sullivan, 20, Mason Gilmartin, 21, and Scott Clark, 20, are New Hampshire natives making a difference for baseball players in the city they love. Each played Little League as kids, and became good friends when they played together in high school. Their individual love for the game brought them all together to a place where they can give back, coaching Manchester NH Little League’s (MNHLL) Challenger Program.

The Challenger Program gives players ages 4 – 18 (or still enrolled in high school) who have physical and/or intellectual disabilities a chance to play baseball. MNHLL has been able to serve not only players who are in wheelchairs and players who are non-verbal, but players with a range of physical and intellectual challenges. Regardless of their skill level or ability, these children can play baseball.

Although the Challenger program has existed previously in the city, at Central Little League, and continues at North Little League, this is a first for MNHLL – which was formed in 2017 when Manchester South Little League and Manchester West Side Little League merged, according to MNHLL President Tim Pike.

Coach Scott Clark, left, in blue jacket and sunglasses, confers with players and buddies during a recent MNHLL Challenger game. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Introducing the Challenger program to MNHLL this year was important for Coaches Sully and Gilmartin because there was no program like it for children with special needs. As an elementary and special-ed major, Sullivan is looking to become a behavior specialist. Gilmartin is a student at SNHU majoring in elementary education and special education with a minor in psychology. As a Direct Support Professional at Community Integrated Services in Manchester, Clark works with adults over 21 with physical and intellectual disabilities. Each is very dedicated to making this program become a staple at Manchester Little League.

The joy of playing baseball extends to players of all skill levels and abilities with MNHLL’s Challenger Division. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Sullivan was the assistant coach for the Memorial JV team and a first-time coach at MNHLL last year. He fell in love with Little League and chose to leave his JV position this year to join the MNHLL board as the Tee-Ball and Coach Pitch Director, and coach Little League. He manages and coaches one of their 12-year-old Majors teams and will manage and coach the 12-year-old All-Star team that will play this summer.

Gilmartin played at MNHLL (formerly South Little League) and after finishing Babe Ruth, played four years for Memorial High School and then continued for four years at Sweeney Post where he now is a coach. His Little League coaching experience includes a minors team, a majors team and an intermediate team as well as a fall ball team, last fall. This spring, he joined the board of directors at MNHLL as the Director of Intermediate, Juniors and Seniors. He will also coach the 12-year-old All-Star team this summer.

The “buddy” system makes the game fun for all players. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Clark played all the way through Little League. He coached a year of Memorial High School football and has coached with Sullivan and Gilmartin for the last two seasons, and he will join them as coach for the  12-year-old All-Star team this summer.

Originally from Manchester, Nick Sullivan, “Coach Sully” to the kids, brought the Challenger Baseball Program to the attention of Manchester NH Little League this year and after talking with President Pike, and the MNHLL board of directors, he was given the go-ahead to make it happen.

Striking a pose on the field. Photo/Stacy Harrison

The Challenger program doesn’t only serve the children playing the game – it is a positive experience for every “buddy” that’s involved. The “buddies” are responsible for assisting players as needed, whether it’s helping hit a ball, running the bases with a player in a wheelchair or helping direct plays for players who are able to hit or field a ball, but are experiencing the game for the first time or are still learning about the game.

The players and buddies are getting an experience that coaches Sully, Gilmartin and Clark hope will be an experience to last a lifetime for all the amazing players.

“I say it all the time – I am pretty sure I have more fun than the kids do,” said Coach Sully.

Sally Dreckmann, District Administrator for NH’s District 1 Little League said she had the opportunity to attend the last Challenger game of the season on Saturday.

“It brought me tears of joy,” says Dreckmann, who helped bring a Challenger program to Central Little League about a decade ago, where it was popular for several years before the league restructured, and eventually, was discontinued.

“Challenger is one of my favorite divisions. What I love about it is that it gives every child the opportunity to play baseball, no matter what their ability level is, and the buddies are 12-year-olds who’ve played for seven years, so the program provides a chance to teach them not only how to play ball, but how to give back,” Dreckmann says. “If we can’t do that, then we’re not doing our job.”

Dreckmann says so encouraged by the three young coaches, who really get what the spirit of Little League baseball is all about.

“Nick is a wonderful young man. I actually got to talk to him about the program, and it looks like they took my advice – to make it fun, but also still make it baseball,” Dreckmann says. “It was such a wonderful atmosphere, and I got to see them get their medals on Saturday.”

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In a Facebook post, MNHLL President Tim Pike said, “This season has been full of exciting events. The one that I, as President, am most proud of is the start of the Challenger Division at MNHLL.”

Teams Kid Galaxy and Home Depot played their last game of the season June 15. Because the game is played tee-ball style, there is no score. Rather, it’s all about the team experience, camaraderie and fun factor.  The coaches and parents are already looking forward to next season when they plan to expand the program next year by creating more teams.

For more information on getting involved as a volunteer, contact darryljohnstonnh@gmail.com.

Manchester NH Little League is located at 1 Driving Park Rd. in Manchester.