After a solid debut last season, the Strike Out Autism Baseball Challenge is bigger and better in its second year of supporting a great cause.

Hosted by the Central Regional High School Autism Awareness Club, the event will feature 12 teams playing six games at three different sites on Saturday, including five of the teams in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. Last year's inaugural event featured one double-header hosted by Central, so the expansion is a sign that the event has the potential to become a regular and anticipated part of the Shore Conference baseball landscape every spring.

The members of the Central Regional baseball team supported the first annual "Strike Out Autism Baseball Challenge" by raising money with a car wash and hosting the event last season. The event has now expanded to 12 teams and three sites in its second year, and the teams will be given special T-shirts like the ones Central wore last year. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Frulio).

"I think we proved that this year we can make this a big deal and make it a big
event to raise awareness for autism,'' said event organizer Jerry Frulio, a former head coach at Central and St. Rose.

The event will include double-headers at Central, Wall and Howell on Saturday. Central will play Mater Dei Prep at 11 a.m., followed by Barnegat against St. John Vianney at 2 p.m. At Wall, the Crimson Knights will host rival St. Rose at 11 a.m., followed by Toms River South against Long Branch at 2 p.m. Over at Howell, the Rebels will play Class A North rival Middletown North at 10 a.m., followed by Brick against Jackson Liberty at 1 p.m.

"I was excited to get five of the preseason (Shore Sports Network) top 10,'' Frulio said. "These are quality programs year in and year out. It's exciting to have that high level of play, because we were hoping for top teams in the Shore to draw more attention to what we're doing. These teams also definitely have quality coaches who command a lot of respect around the Shore."

At all three locations, there will be tables where fans can make donations, and T-shirts for the event will also be sold. The proceeds will be split 50-50 between Autism Speaks, which raises money for research, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism as well as raising awareness, and Brick-based Parents of Autistic Children. Frulio's son Dayton, 6, has autism, so it's a cause Frulio has been heavily involved in.

"Dayton was diagnosed before his third birthday, so we were able to get him early intervention," Frulio said. "At three, he had maybe a handful of words and now you can't shut him up. The Berkeley school system has a pre-K autism program he started at 3 years old, and we've had some unbelievable teachers and people that
generally care."

Last year the event raised $3,000 from two games at one site, so Frulio is optimistic it will be bigger and better this season. Howell head coach Eric Johnson told him the team has already sold $900 worth of T-shirts in school. Last year, Central coach John Scran and the team held a car wash and surprised Frulio with an extra donation of $575.

"We now have 12 teams, and we want to get them all involved in doing something so that now the kids are stakeholders in the event. They've done something concrete that they can sink their teeth into and feel good about making that donation.

"It's such an awesome feeling to hand these people (at the two organizations) this check. If these players could have that same feeling, it makes them accountable for raising awareness and raising money and feeling good about what they've done."