Vargulich carries on Little League tradition
BY KALYN KAHLER Staff reporter August 15, 2013 9:29PM
For the Varguliches, the Little League World Series is a family affair.
Peter Vargulich played in the 1972 LLWS. His father, Tom, coached the team all the way to the final, where they lost to Taiwan.
But when Peter’s son Tommy, 16, was born with Down syndrome, he never imagined he’d one day return to Williamsport to cheer on the third-generation Vargulich.
“When Tommy was born, there was a different sort of look at people with disabilities,” Peter said. “I didn’t know what was possible for him.”
“What are the chances that your special-needs child would get to do what you did on this type of stage?” said Paul Williams, father of Tommy’s teammate Matthew.
As a player on the Illinois District 13 Challenger team, which provides mentally and physically challenged kids the opportunity to play Little League baseball, the possibilities are endless.
He’s one of 15 players and 15 buddies on the first Challenger team from Illinois selected to play in the 13th annual exhibition at the LLWS. Tommy and his teammates will play against the California District 57 team Aug. 24 in a game that will be televised locally on Ch. 11 and available nationally on ESPN3.com.
Without the Challenger program, which Little League introduced in 1989, Tommy wouldn’t have the opportunity to share the love of baseball with his father and grandfather.
“Tommy appreciates that we’ve all been there,” Peter said. “It’s something that he’ll be able to have for the rest of his life, knowing that we all share this event and this place.”
The District 13 team was chosen from more than 900 Challenger divisions worldwide.
The program has grown since the start of the first Challenger program in Illinois 19 years ago. Today, District 13 has 165 players and 14 teams from the combination of the Bartlett, Tri-Cities and Woodstock Little Leagues.
Sam Ranck, director of the Challenger division, said the spirit of expansion is what helped set apart District 13.
“They are continually working to expand their reach in their area,” Ranck said. “They’re constantly working to provide new opportunities for the players.”
Mark Johnson, manager of the District 13 Challenger team, furthered the expansion and was one of the founders of the Tri-Cities Challenger league in 2009.
“Our goal was 15 kids, but within the first season we had 53 kids sign up to play,” Johnson said. “At that point, we knew that we struck a chord.”
Johnson said the players are excited for the game.
“They are nothing short of being ecstatic about the opportunity to play on the big field,” Johnson said. “We’re playing in the same stadium, on the same field, on the same day as the U.S. and international championship games.”
Johnson said he hopes the international exposure will help people accept and include kids with special needs.
“It teaches people that there are kids out there that don’t throw a ball 65 mph and don’t hit the ball 250 feet that still love the game,” Johnson said.
When the Illinois Challenger players step up to bat, there might not be a dry eye at Volunteer Stadium.
“I’ve had parents pick up their uniforms and begin to cry,” Johnson said. “Because they never thought they’d see their child’s name on the back of a uniform.”