Yarmouth’s Jack Prato is one of many local returning Unified basketball players looking forward to a new season.
The sport of Unified basketball is no longer a novelty and its popularity and growth remain indisputable.
Unified basketball, which is a partnership among the Maine Principals’ Association, Special Olympics Maine and Project Unify, a branch of Special Olympics dedicated to increasing athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities, has drawn rave reviews from all who participate and bear witness.
Unified basketball teams athletes with developmental disabilities with non-varsity partners without developmental disabilities. At least three athletes must be on the court at all times and the partners may score no more than 25 percent of their team’s points.
In 2015-16, 17 teams took part. Last winter, 32 teams participated.
This winter, there will be a whopping 47 teams (representing 52 schools) taking part when the sport’s third MPA-sanctioned season tips off Friday.
Forecaster Country features a pair of third-year programs, Greely and Yarmouth, a second-year program, Portland/Deering, and two new programs, Cape Elizabeth and Freeport.
The teams have varying goals, but the common theme is having fun and enjoying a great sport.
Portland/Deering had a tremendous debut season, getting all the way to the regional final. This winter, Cherry Farausi, longtime Portland High boys’ soccer coach Rocco Frenzilli and Chris Hazelton are serving as the coaches.
Seven players return and eight newcomers are on the scene as well.
“This larger roster gives our rotations nice depth, with players who all have something different to offer the team,” Hazelton said. “I’d say that our main goal is for everyone to have an overall positive experience this season. We want to do this by developing individual basketball skills, supporting one another and being a cohesive team and representing the values of Deering and Portland through sportsmanship. With the core of our team returning this year and the addition of new players, we will have a chance for the same if not a (deeper) playoff run. We even have a senior captain from last year, Matt Mikkelson, returning as an assistant coach.”
Yarmouth has enjoyed terrific participation and success in its two seasons and expects to be competitive again this winter.
Players to watch include scorer Sarah Bean, top rebounder Jeanelle Davies, 3-point specialist Colin Cook, ballhandler Jack Prato and top defender Taylor Geiger.
“This year will be a different year for us, as our ‘run and gun’ big scorers have graduated,” said Yarmouth coach Ashley Marden. “Our team this year will be a true team effort similar to the Golden State Warriors, with everyone doing their share. The goal for this season is to make everyone feel like a rock star, to learn more about the sport and to become a fantastic team unit.”
Greely is another team that will make its share of noise in the weeks to come.
The Rangers return seniors Connor Hines and Jack Rosenblum and sophomores Madison Conklin, Olivia Davis and Charlie Saffian. That solid core is joined by new sophomores Ryan Lynch and Sydney Pettengill.
Veteran senior partners Katherine Leggat-Barr, Tate Porter, Bhramari Schiff and Riley Soule are joined this season by new senior Max Stickney, junior Nate Cyr and sophomore Ben Follett.
“We have good scorers who can really fill it up when they get hot,” said Greely coach Derek Soule. “I would like us to continue to improve on defensive positioning, rebounding and passing as the season progresses.
“We hope to create a positive, fun environment in every practice and game and continue to improve our skills and teamwork throughout the year. In addition, I hope we can foster strong relations between the players and create positive memories for all involved.”
Freeport’s first-year team doesn’t have big numbers, but there is no shortage of enthusiasm.
Bill Ridge, the school’s very successful baseball and boys’ basketball coach, who also teaches special education at Freeport Middle School, will head the Falcons in their first foray into varsity play.
“We have about five to seven Unified athletes and a handful of partners at this point,” Ridge said. “We’re definitely looking to grow as we keep practicing and begin having games. So far, Unified has been a totally different experience than coaching varsity athletics. Both are rewarding, but in very different ways. We have students coming before school to play. They come in and work hard, but at the same time, we are all having a blast in the gym. It’s an extremely positive way for not only the athletes but also the partners and the coaches to begin a school day. Several of the athletes are former students of mine, which made getting comfortable with each other an easy process.
“Now, we hope to focus on some other goals. There are many elements and layers to what is happening at practices and what we hope to accomplish through the season. We want to generate interest and excitement throughout the school community for this program. We hope to learn and give opportunities to learn key parts of teamwork and communication. Ultimately, it sounds cliche, but if we are able to grow numbers and have fun, this season will be a success. It really is a great program across the state and we are happy to begin supporting it here.”
Cape Elizabeth is also starting a program. The Capers will be coached by Sarah Boeckel, who has coached the school’s volleyball and girls’ tennis teams to state titles in recent years. She’ll be assisted by Nate Carpenter, the assistant principal.
There’s a lot of excitement around the program as the new season dawns.
“I’m really excited to be a part of this,” Boeckel said. “I’m excited to be back working with Unified sports, I was a part of the Poland Unified basketball program, it was such a fun and rewarding experience. We’re looking for growth, fun, and being a part of some competition this year. We’ve got eight athletes and numerous peers. It’s a great group and they’re looking forward to our first game, Friday against Deering.”
The regular season ends March 8 and the playoffs begin March 10. The state final will be held March 23.