During the month of May, Blue Springs High School softball coach and history teacher Jim Brandner spent every Tuesday morning eagerly anticipating a visit with junior Seth Gaylord before the start of his class.
The likeable Gaylord would enter the classroom and regale Brandner and a handful of Wildcat softball players with the tales of his Monday night Exceptionals league heroics.
“Honestly, in my U.S. history class, we all waited for Seth to come into our class and tell us what he did the night before in his Exceptionals league game,” said Brandner, who took nearly 40 of his softball players to the Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Kansas City, where the Exceptionals league enjoyed a special night on the multi-field complex.
Exceptionals softball offers children and adults who are unable to physically or mentally participate in other leagues the chance to play softball every Monday night in May and June, on T-ball or coaches-pitch teams. They usually play at Hidden Valley Park in Blue Springs, but this was a special night under the lights at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy.
“That’s why we’re here tonight, to see Seth and to let our players serve as buddies for the Exceptionals players,” Brandner continued. “They might push a wheelchair for a player or just encourage a more able-bodied player at bat or in the field.
“It’s great that our players get to see what the game of baseball means to all the Exceptionals, and I think it helps them realize how fortunate they are that they get to play softball in summer leagues or for the high school. There are a million stories here.”
Moments after Gaylord received his team photo and trophy, he sought out Blue Springs football coach and activities director Kelly Donohoe and Brandner to show them his new hardware.
“I’m going to be a senior and I’ve played with the Exceptionals since I was in kindergarten,” said Gaylord, whose sister Abi said her brother is a highly functional autistic teenager. “I love having Abi here and Coach (Brandner) is here. We talk a lot of softball during the school year.”
When someone joked that Gaylord taught Brandner all he knows about softball, the senior to be smiled and said, “Yeah, I think I did.”
That brought a round of laughter for Gaylord’s family.
“Seth is a great kid and Monday nights – watching him play softball – are so special for our family,” Abi said. “We’re a baseball family and Exceptionals give Seth the chance to play the game he loves. I can’t even tell you how much this league and Monday nights mean to him.”
Recent Blue Springs graduate Cody Westerman is another Wildcat who has made a big impact at his school, and on his Exceptionals teammates.
“Cody Westerman, my man Cody,” Donohoe said. “We start every day with a visit from Cody. He likes to come in and make sure we’re on our toes and keeping busy.”
That comment brings a thumbs-up from Westerman, who has Williams syndrome (a developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body.
“I have fun here,” said Cody, who was soon joined by his coach Todd Campbell, a former member of Fort Osage High School’s first state championship team and an assistant coach for the Blue Springs South baseball team.
“Ask Cody about his 30 home runs!” Campbell said, which drew another thumbs-up from Westerman. “He can hit the ball.”
His parents, Tabatha and Ryan Westerman, say Mondays are the best day of the week for their family.
“You look in the dugout and see everyone smiling and you know Cody is making them smile,” Ryan said. “He gets so excited about Monday nights because he gets to be with his peers and play his favorite game.”
Tabatha, who was battling her emotions, was quick to add, “I can’t even tell you what this league and Monday nights mean to Cody and our family.”
That was a statement that every family could embrace on this special Monday night.
Kendra and Steve Howard have been Exceptionals coaches for 12 years – since the first season their 17-year-old son Taylor joined the league.
“This league started with 18 kids and now has over 290,” Kendra said, “and it’s just an amazing place for the kids and their parents. It’s a little different for Steve and me because we coach, but for many of the parents, they can come watch their kids play – with their buddies on the field – and enjoy a game like every parent. They can sit back, cheer for their child and have a great night!”
No Exceptionals player ever makes an out, and everyone gets to run around the bases – which is exactly what Grain Valley South Middle School student Trinity Keel did – with a little help from Blue Springs South softball standout Regi Hecker, who was pushing her wheelchair.
“I like to hit and run the bases,” said the effervescent Keel, who has epilepsy, scoliosis and a rare genetic disorder that doesn’t keep her off the Exceptionals baseball diamond on Monday nights. “My buddy helped me run fast tonight.”
Hecker, who was participating in her first Exceptionals game, was impressed with the players.
“My partner Trinity is really into softball, just like I am,” said Hecker, who was part of the South 2018 state championship softball team. “I love these players and their enthusiasm. They really make me appreciate it that I can play softball and don’t have to deal with the things they deal with every day of their lives.”
Jenner Philpott is 21 and has been an Exceptionals player since he was 6. He suffers from severe mental and physical issues, but once he sees his teammates and a softball field his face lights up.
“You know how involved I was with my older boys – Jaguars this, Jaguars stuff that,” said his mother, Lisa Philpott, who has two sons who participated in sports at Blue Springs South. “Now, it’s Exceptionals this and Exceptionals that. All you have to do is look at Jenner’s face and you know how much he loves being here. And so do I!”
The league is sponsored by the Blue Springs Girls Softball Association. T-shirts, trophies and an end-of-the-year celebration are paid for by corporate and individual sponsors. For more information on how to donate, volunteer or become involved, call Laurie Munzuris at 816-522-6749.