Strike Out Autism Baseball Challenge Brings Excitement, Awareness and Donations for a Great Cause
BAYVILLE - While Saturday's Strike Out Autism Challenge across the Shore Conference was all about some exciting baseball and raising money for a great cause, it also put a face on a disorder that for so long was hidden away.
The big grins on the faces of Dayton Frulio, Connor Poll, Brick's Anthony Starego, Wall student James MacInnes and several others as they threw out first pitches before Saturday's games showed how children with autism have become much more integrated into the fabric of their schools and communities. The days of children with autism being isolated from their peers have been replaced by compassion and support as awareness spreads.
"The mindset has changed in the special education system from separation to involvement,'' said Central head coach John Scran, who has been part of the event for all three years of its existence. "In our school, we have a great autism program, a great special ed program, and the kids within the school are great with those kids and make them feel like part of the school environment."
Dayton, 7, is the son of Challenge director Jerry Frulio, a former head coach at St. Rose and his alma mater, Central, whose wife, Jo-Dee, is a teacher in the autism program at Central Regional Middle School. He has gone from a child who didn't even speak when he was three to a chatty 7-year-old who spent a good chunk of Freehold Township's 5-1 win over host Central hanging out in the Patriots' dugout.
"He's a really nice kid, really energetic,'' said Freehold Township senior pitcher Kyle Fenton, who got the win with a two-hitter. "He got us all pumped up before the game."
Starego did the same for the games at Jackson Memorial, throwing out the first pitch in advance of Brick's eventual loss to Manalapan. For those not living under a rock for the past two years, Starego is the standout kicker from Brick with autism who became a mini-celebrity for his feats on the field and for his family's successful fight against the NJSIAA for an unprecedented fifth year of eligibility in 2013. He is beloved by the student body at Brick, showing how students with special needs can become a vital part of a school's identity.
"The other kids love seeing those kids because they're so positive and enthusiastic,'' Southern coach John Natoli said before the Rams' win over Mater Dei Prep at Central. "The kids love interacting with them."
Certainly part of the reason for the continued acceptance of children with autism by the other students is because there are simply more of them, so almost everyone has a family member with the disorder or knows someone with it. One in 68 children nationally has an autism spectrum disorder, and New Jersey has the highest rate in the country of one in 45, including 1 in 28 in boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The growth in awareness about autism has been mirrored by the growth of the Strike Out Autism Challenge, which has gone from four teams in its inaugural year in 2013 to 36 teams playing 18 games across nine sites in Monmouth and Ocean counties on Saturday.
"I think the more educated we are towards autism or to anyone with special needs is important,'' Jerry Frulio said. "These players get more educated, and they grow more compassionate about it. I think they're genuinely proud to play in this event. It's not just another game."
"I think when our kids saw the pictures of our guys hanging out with Jerry's son at last year's game in this (event), it hit them that this is pretty cool,'' Mater Dei Prep coach Pat Riddell said. "They were pumped to come down here, and they were all willing to donate the money to help."
Every team did fundraising on its own in addition to the $12 T-shirts that were being sold at all nine sites. There also was a carnival-like atmosphere at Central with bouncy houses and food stands. The proceeds go toward a donation to Autism Speaks as well as funding to help programs at local schools. Money from last year's games helped buy iPads for the autism and special needs programs at Central, Wall and Howell.
Freehold Township coach Todd Smith gave Frulio an envelope with more than $1,600 that his team raised for the event. Last year's games raised $10,000, and this year's games look to at least double and possibly triple that amount.
"We were just excited to come down here and play for a bigger cause,'' Smith said. "I said to the kids to keep things in perspective that the baseball game is a small part of what is going on today. Everything else that goes along with it is something that you guys can say you were proud to be a part of."
The game also had special meaning for Freehold Township starting sophomore shortstop Ralph Gambino and his older brother, Peter, a junior pitcher. They are Frulio's cousins.
"Over the years we've gotten closer to (Frulio), and we've gotten to know the kids more,'' Peter said. "It's been a great experience."
"Dayton has come a long way,'' Ralph said. "To have this for him is very special, and to be part of it is special, plus we got the win."
While the beautiful weather and the money raised for the cause were certainly things to savor, the action on the field was also memorable. In his first varsity start, Fenton threw a complete-game two-hitter, striking out five and hitting one batter. He retired 14 straight to end the game, polishing off the win on 88 pitches.
Lead-off hitter Brandon Roth went 2-for-2 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a run scored, and senior catcher Joe Silvestrone earned Player of the Game honors. He finished 2-for-3 with a walk and a two-run blast over the center field fence for his Shore Conference-leading sixth home run of the year.
"It definitely feels good to represent the school, our program and ourselves for a great cause like this,'' Silvestrone said.
"I know a lot of kids who have (autism), so it was good to give back,'' Fenton said. "It was a beautiful day and a great game."
There were plenty of great games, including Jackson Memorial's Rich Rountree clubbing a walk-off grand slam in an 8-4 win over rival Jackson Liberty, and Ocean's Anthony Bartolomei smacking a walk-off solo shot in extra innings to give the Spartans a 3-2 win over Freehold Boro.
Red Bank beat Monmouth Regional 9-8 on a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth inning, and Brick Memorial knocked No. 2 Colts Neck from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 5-3 upset helped by a two-run homer by junior Matt Cuppari.
Beautiful weather, great baseball, and most importantly, increased awareness and funding for a cause that touches thousands of lives in New Jersey - Frulio couldn't have asked for anything better than that. The day also showed that children with autism are part of the game, too, when it comes to their communities.
"A lot of these kids really become the most popular kids at their schools,'' Frulio said. "I just think we've seen so much more empathy and compassion for them."
Dayton has become so popular that he started to walk with the Freehold Township players toward the parking lot after the game and was ready to board the bus. He was just another one of the guys before mom intervened.
"No, Dayton, you can't go home with them,'' Jo-Dee Frulio said before smiling.