The game was nowhere to be found on a AIA schedule. There were no power points at stake.
There are plenty of vital sporting events going on as the winter sports season winds down.
A win can make or break a season.
And yet the most important sports event of the season, maybe even the school year, took place off the grid.
It ended in a tie, but the smiles, unbridled enthusiasm and pure joy that emanated from the players on the diamond at Westwood High on Saturday surely indicated there were plenty of winners.
“We call it the special game and it really is,” Westwood baseball coach RJ Langston said. “Our boys are so blessed with so many things and they get to come out and be a champion for someone else.”
For the fifth year, Westwood and Red Mountain get together before the start of the baseball season for the Very Special Baseball game between MOID (moderate intellectual disability) students from both schools.
The baseball players from each school participate and guide the special needs students on what to do and where to go, but not all needed assistance.
Jordan from Westwood slid without abandonment and Andrew from Red Mountain had a vicious swing that had enough launch angle to make any of the players from either team a little jealous.
The day played out exactly as Langston envisioned when he brought up the idea to Westwood special needs teacher Jane Dutcher-Pagel more than five years ago.
“It’s more than I could have ever dreamed that it could be,” Dutcher-Pagel said. “The students love it. The very first year I had a parent come up to me crying and saying they never thought they’d see their kid on a varsity field.
“It’s a great activity for our students, the baseball players and the parents. It’s truly an all-inclusive event that really makes their (special needs kids) day.”
The event has a special place in Langston’s heart as he adopted a down syndrome child and matching up with Red Mountain made complete sense considering Mountain Lions coach Ross Pagel is Jane’s husband and Langston’s former coach.
“It’s been really neat and special,” said Pagel, whose daughter, MacKenzie, and son, Riley, also participated. “As much as the special needs kids enjoy it, the players get a lot out of it as well. They’re all here and ready to be part of it for them.”
The game is staged on the Warriors’ varsity manicured field. The skills, knowledge of the game and attention spans varied as much as the blades of grass under their feet.
Some players made good contact, knew to tag runners or throw to first base while others sat in the field, danced to walk-up music in their head and hugged players from the other team.
It was all accepted and treated as normal, which is usually not that case with special needs students. They get separated, treated differently and can be left behind.
Not on this day.
The scoreboard shined vividly against the darkened, foreboding sky. The smiles were brighter.
Their enthusiasm was matched only, possibly, by umpire Anaya Hassell, who cheered wildly, took pictures with them and showed players what direction to run all the way down to first base.
The players were the stars and were cheered on as if every hit, run and out was going to decide something monumental on the scoreboard on the way to a championship.
Instead, the moments were hitting home as rare moments of complete inclusion.
“It’s a big deal,” said Kristine Vargas, whose daughter, Paris, played for Westwood. “With these kids you never know what opportunities they have to do the things that all the other kids do. Anytime they can do something like this is incredible. It really is a big deal.”
Paris is non-verbal, so her communication is directly through expressions and movements. She spent all week leading up to the game showing off her swing at home.
“She’s a nut and a total ham and she loves the attention,” her mother said while beaming with pride. “She is a very social kid. She has been swinging all week like, ‘Check me out, mom. I’m going to crush it.’ ”
Everyone crushed it on this day.
They all come through in the clutch, for each other and the bigger cause. The result won’t show up in the power rankings, but there was a ton of strength given to the players swinging away and tearing down the baseline.
“Something like this doesn’t happen very often for them,” Langston said. “I think most of the (baseball) players get what it means to the (MOID students). Everyone does everything they can to make sure they have the time of their life out here.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.