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Big 26 Challenger Game Unites Athletes from Pennsylvania and Maryland

The Big 26 Challenger Game pairs the best high school baseball players from Pennsylvania and Maryland with young athletes with disabilities.
Carter Hutchinson (left) and Aidan Ruiz.

Carter Hutchinson (left) and Aidan Ruiz.

This summer the top 26 high school baseball players from Maryland and Pennsylvania united with players who had disabilities in a Challenger game at the Harrisburg Senators’ FNB Field. The teams selected for the Big 26 Baseball Classic were paired with athletes from age five to 21 to play a three-inning game.

The Big 26 was modeled after the Big 33, a tournament between the top 33 football players in Maryland and Pennsylvania over Memorial Day weekend, and the Challenger game has become a big part of the event. Mike Gingerich, Director of Baseball Operations, said that his favorite part is “the players’ experience and their reactions, the buddy experience, and [meeting] the class of 2020 and 2021!”

This is the second year Sydney Watson (below, second from left) and Brady Gibble (below, far left) have been buddies. Gibble is an outfielder from Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pennsylvania, and has verbally committed to play at Old Dominion University. Watson thinks this weekend is “a lot of fun” and has participated since it began in 2012. She also plays field hockey and likes the golfer Bubba Watson. Gibble says he “definitely feel[s] honored, and it is a great experience. It’s a great amount of talent.”


Gabriella Eichenlaub (above, seated) looks forward to this event every year. She has Rett syndrome, a genetic neurological disorder. Her buddy was Evan Haulik (above, standing behind Gabriella), from Annapolis Area Christian School in Severn, Maryland. Haulik, who started playing baseball at seven when his friend asked him to try out for a team, was a pitcher for Maryland. Eichenlaub and Haulik both share a love of minor and major league baseball. Eichenlaub is a Tim Tebow fan, and Haulik loves Andrew McCutchen!

Brevin Neveker has had the chance to be with his buddy, Christian Marchese, for the last few years. Brevin started baseball when he was five, and he plays centerfield. The experience has been “very eye-opening for him and very humbling.”

The Hershey Harrisburg Sports and Events Authority took over the Big26 in 2018 under Executive Director Gregg Cook. The HHSE aims to have “every college or major league championship…[with] a Big 26 alum on the field.”

Pennsylvania’s head coach Brian Fili went to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania for tryouts in May to find the best 26 players in the classes of 2020 and 2021. “[It’s great] to get a chance to have the best Pennsylvania players against the best of Maryland. [You are] trying to represent your state and school,” said Fili. “The Buddy experience is great for the players.”

Between tryouts, emails, and word of mouth, the Big 26 tournament is growing in popularity. It has grown as far as the number of players who have tried out, and the organizers are planning on trying to make it a community event so that little leaguers and other sports fans can watch a great series.

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