WAKEFIELD — On Saturday, May 7, Wakefield’s Challenger Baseball community braved the cold and wind at Back Fernald Field to congratulate and thank John and Maureen Koehler for their longstanding service to the Challenger program.

The Koehler Family Field was dedicated to John and Maureen, and to their daughters Erin DeRosa, Kathryn Koehler, and Alyce Reilly, who have volunteered through the years alongside their parents.

The newly christened Koehler Family Field is where you’ll find Senior Challenger games played on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the Spring and where balls are routinely smashed well beyond the outfield and into the opposite Keith Irons Field by sluggers like Jeremiah Doucette and Kaley Chiarelli.

Challenger is a Little League-affiliated adaptive baseball program for players with physical or intellectual disabilities who benefit from a different model of play than conventional town and travel baseball.

The Koehlers started the local program over 30 years ago in Wakefield, to level the playing field in local youth sports and provide an athletic and social opportunity to all. While the Challenger athletes develop baseball skills, their families join the fun, either by volunteering on the field or cheering from the bleachers with friends made through this caring community.

When the Koehlers started the Wakefield Challenger program in the mid-1990s, they had a modest group of about eight players and a less-than-ideal venue in the Greenwood School parking lot. The program has since grown to highs of over 30 players and play divided onto two well-maintained, lined fields at Fernald. Uniforms are freely provided by Wakefield Little League, regional jamborees and tournaments feature Wakefield Challenger players and volunteers, and an end of season extravaganza at Front Fernald Field is one of the summer’s highlights.

May 7th’s field dedication was made possible by Little League President Bryan Fabbri and the WLL Board of Directors along with a generous donation by Wakefield’s Sardella Sign and Graphics.

John and Maureen were presented with both the field sign and a beautiful plaque crafted and donated by Brian Murphy of Crown Trophy Peabody. It reads “Thank you for more than 30 years of selfless generosity, love, and dedication to the Challenger League. Your commitment has given joy and a sense of belonging to hundreds of athletes over the years.”

Short, kind speeches were made that morning, acknowledging what the Challenger program has meant to so many. Senior player Kevin Melendez, Jr. gave the Koehlers a bouquet of flowers and hugs. Pictures were taken and families happily caught up with one another, given that many past Challenger families were in attendance. Past volunteer Mike Borque thanked the Koehlers at the microphone, and former players Jennifer and Chris Willoth were in attendance with their dad Bob.

John and Maureen spoke a bit to the crowd, predictably directing the attention away from themselves. They wanted the focus to be on the players and the game of baseball, which Challenger athlete Grace Gulino kicked off that morning with a shout of “Play ball!” into the mic.

When I caught John for a moment as the group spread to the surrounding fields, he pointed to the word “Family” on the sign bearing his name, saying, “That’s the word, right there.”

He surely meant both his family of five at his side and his larger, adopted Challenger family of over 40 strong in the audience.