When the Bennett Blazers — Kennedy Krieger Institute's Physically Challenged Sports Program — first sent a wheelchair softball team to the National Championships in Minnesota several years ago, the team was admittedly unprepared.
"The first year, three or four years ago, we bought some bats on the way out there and practiced in the parking lot the night before," said Gerry Herman, who — along with his wife Gwena — directs Kennedy Krieger's Physically Challenged Sports Program. "The first year may have been our most athletic team, but we didn't understand the basic concepts."
Now, with a few years of seasoning, the Bennett Blazers have come a long way since those early days.
"By the end of the tournament the first year we were already turning double plays," Herman said. "The core of the varsity has played the last three years together."
Wheelchair softball is similar to traditional slow pitch softball, except players do not wear gloves and the game is played with a larger, softer ball. Nearly half of the players are also not confined to wheelchairs, but have other physical disabilities.
"Forty-five percent of athletes who play wheelchair sports don't even own wheelchairs," Herman said. "It's just like using a bicycle."
Last year, the Blazers — named after Kennedy Krieger's Dr. William Bennett — traveled to Minnesota and won the J.V. National Junior Wheelchair Softball Championship. This year, Kennedy Krieger will play host to the 2013 National Championship tournament in Baltimore, Aug. 2-4, and Herman thinks that the Blazers have a good shot at winning the varsity title.
"Our aspiration this year is for our varsity to unseat Nebraska," he said.
The Nebraska Barons have won seven Division I national titles since 2003, acheiving dynasty status, but Herman thinks that one change this year could end the Barons reign of dominance.
In past years, coaches would pitch to their own players, allowing Nebraska to hit home run after home run by finding their players' wheel house.
"This is the first year that the kids will pitch," Herman said. "It's fun to get the kids to think about (strategy) and work together."
The Blazers wheelchair softball program is divided into three teams based on age group, with players aged 10 and under on a developmental team, 14 and under forming the JV and players aged 14 and up competing on varsity. Players still enrolled in high school, up to the age of 22, are eligible to compete. The teams practice once a week for one hour to work on basic concepts.
Six Bennett Blazers are from Howard County, including Noah Hanssen, 13; Kyle Cavalier, 13; Louis Schaab, 11; and Justin Jaquis, who was a member of last year's JV team that won the national title and will compete with the varsity this year. Jaquis, who has cerebral palsy and attends Clarksville Middle School, has been a part of the Kennedy Krieger sports program since he was two years old and has been playing wheelchair softball for the last three years.
"He was very excited when they started a softball team because he loves softball and baseball," Judie Jaquis, Justin's mother said.
"I like being with my friends, I love playing it and watching it, I just love everything about it," he said.
Justin, who was born in Chicago, is a fan of both the Orioles and the Cubs, and says that his favorite player is Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. His favorite position to play is first base, but wheelchair softball players typically play multiple positions throughout a game.
"Justin has really improved. Even though he can only use one arm, he has some of the better skills on the team," Herman said.
Although Kennedy Krieger is in the process of constructing a dedicated wheelchair softball diamond thanks to funding from The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, the ballpark will not be completed until this fall.
In the past, the wheelchair softball team has been forced to practice in a Kennedy Krieger parking lot or in a gymnasium when it rains.
"It's kind of hard because (the parking lot) is on a slant and it takes a lot of effort to get up the hill, plus I can only use one hand which makes it harder," Justin Jaquis said.
And even though the new ballpark won't be ready for this year's tournament, just having the national championships in Charm City is a proud occassion for the city and Kennedy Krieger Institute.
"It's nice to have this tournament in our own backyard, to have people from all over the country see this wonderful program," Judie Jaquis said. "It's an amazing group of people who run it and share a common bond with the disabilities."
Justin looks forward to having local fan support.
"I'm happy to have fun with my teammates and have my friends and family close by and not have to travel as far to watch us play," he said. "It would be nice to win but what's more important is spending time with my teammates."
"Plus, he gets to sleep in his own bed, which makes a huge difference," Judie Jaquis added.
Another local Blazer, 12-year-old Will Brazel of Elkridge, will be competing in his first national tournament.
"I think it will be good. I think we have a chance to win, but I know I'll have fun and it's not about winning or losing," he said.
Brazel, who has polio, also competes in basketball, swimming, sled hockey, lacrosse, archery and fencing.
Will and his twin brother, Ben, were adopted from Russia when they were three years old.
"This has allowed Will to have this niche and be a part of a team and be supported," said his mother, Sue.
As Herman says, aside from being in wheelchairs, the athletes on the Bennett Blazers aren't much different from young athletes across the country.
"It's like every kid in every sport, it's a decompression sport. It's fun, it's something to do, it gets the kids out there."
For more information on the tournament, go to wheelchairsoftball.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun