For Ridgefield's Holland sluggers, inclusivity is the name of the game

RIDGEFIELD — The traffic cone sitting at home plate in place of a standard tee was a clear indication that the baseball game would be nothing short of memorable.

A sun-drenched Jensen Field was filled with smiling sluggers Saturday morning as players in Ridgefield Little League’s Holland Division warmed up for their final game of the season. The roster includes special needs children of varying ages and abilities.

Garry Berger founded the division in 2005 for his son, Max, who has special needs. Teams are organized based on a child’s ability and can include up to 20 players who engage in one of three levels of play: T-ball, coach-pitch or player pitch.

Also unique to the division is the use of a “buddy system.” Buddies are paired one-to-one or two-to-one with a Holland player so they can assist them as they take swings at bat, run the bases or make plays in the field.

Berger’s younger son, Harry, was the division’s first buddy coordinator. The title now belongs to Ridgefield High School sophomore Jacob Voellmicke, who plays on the Tigers’ varsity baseball team.

“I had been a volunteer for the Holland league in years past and I thought that it was such a great cause,” Voellmicke said. “When I heard (Harry was) stepping down, I wanted to take over. I knew how important this was to the kids and I wanted to make sure that it continued.”

Voellmicke and his mother, Lisa Ipp-Voellmicke, were set to take over operations from the Bergers in 2020, but the pandemic changed those plans. To get the division back into the swing of things this year, Ipp-Voellmicke enlisted the help of Ridgefield Little League Board President Bryan Ward, who provided uniforms for her seven players.

“To be able to bring this back brought the board such joy, and the amount of work (Lisa did) in a fairly short period of time was incredible,” Ward said. “When we decided we were proceeding, we didn't necessarily have anybody playing at that point … but we’re proud of that number.”

The five-week season kicked off last month in coordination with Wilton’s Challenger Division, which also services children with special needs. Games were played at the Wilton YMCA every Saturday, but for their last at bat, Ridgefield’s Holland players came home.

“It’s just the most beautiful setting,” Ipp-Voellmicke said. “We were focused on every player having the best experience possible, and I think we achieved it.”

An advantage of the division is that it meets players where they are. If a child needs to hit a ball off a tee, receive a slow pitch or wants to forego batting to simply run the bases, Holland allows that. If a child is sensitive to sounds — such as loud, cheering fans — spectators will instead quietly rejoice.

The experience is one that’s valuable for both players and their buddies. Ipp-Voellmicke described an instance where a player was too anxious to take the field and opted to stay in his car, so the player’s father asked his buddy to provide some encouragement.

“It felt really good to organize this and allow the players to have a great time playing the sport I love,” Voellmicke said. “I feel that (they) have made many small achievements throughout the season … (and) have learned how to be a part of a team.”

This feeling of inclusion, Ward said, has provided Holland’s players with a sense of normalcy that they may not have found elsewhere.

“As long as I’m in Ridgefield the program will continue,” Ipp-Voellmicke added.

To learn more about Holland, visit www.ridgefieldlittleleague.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com