After a breakthrough opening season, Unified basketball is back for an encore this winter.
Thirty-two teams representing 34 schools state-wide will participate in the second season of the co-ed sport at the interscholastic level (17 teams took part in 2014-15).
The sport’s introduction in Maine last winter stemmed from 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.
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.
This winter, Forecaster Country will field three teams representing four schools.
Greely and Yarmouth return for a second season, which a Deering/Portland co-op team will take the floor for the first time.
Greely was 1-5 last season and this winter will be coached by Derek Soule, the school’s accomplished baseball coach, who has won 234 games and four Class B championships in the spring.
Soule said players to watch this season include seniors Connor Hines, Tyler Kane and Jack Rosenblum, sophomore Carnie Reynolds and freshmen Olivia Davis and Charlie Saffian.
“Our goals are to learn how to be a good team player, to be positive, improve our skills as individual players and as a team, to work hard and do our best, to learn to play with confidence and have fun along the way,” said Soule.
Soule cited familiar reasons as to why Unified basketball appealed to him.
“Unified basketball is special and unique because there is tremendous support from fans for both teams, there is a strong sense of sportsmanship as opposing players compete hard but support each other every step of the way and the contests are fun and competitive despite a wide range of skill levels and experience,” Soule said.
Yarmouth had a 4-2 record in 2014-15. The Clippers are coached this winter by Ashley Marden, who said while there were many players to watch this season, she cited three, seniors Bridget Parker and Jack Prato and sophomore Taylor Geiger.
“These three athletes have an amazing spirit that can’t be broken,” Marden said. “They just love to play. There is not one selfish person on the team. That’s what makes this league so unique. In games, you cheer for both teams. All players on the court makes sure everyone gets a chance at a basket. I have one player, (senior) Keirstin Caldwell, who is an excellent athlete, but insists on showing great sportsmanship by sharing the responsibility of scoring points with her teammates. My partners are also amazing. This team would be nothing without them. Their patience and spirit are original.”
Deering and Portland are combining forces in Unified basketball, as the schools do in boys’ and girls’ hockey.
While the team’s roster wasn’t set at press time, the new program is optimistic about its debut season.
“Deering and Portland are proud to collaborate on this inaugural season of Unified basketball,” said Miles Bisher, who is serving as the Deering/Portland media relations/parent liaison/assistant coach (Chris Hazelton and Adam Perron are co-coaches). “After seeing what a success this sport was last year, our athletic directors and Portland Public Schools jumped at the opportunity to get involved. We all knew it would be an exciting opportunity to make our schools inclusive in the area of athletics, as well as academics. As soon as we mentioned the team to our athletes, they were eager to be a part of the team and put on their school colors like their peers have done for years.
“This season is all about inclusivity and getting the two student bodies to come out and support this team like they would any other. The fact that we have a co-op team really embodies the spirit of the sport and I’m sure our team will become a point of pride for not only our players, but our schools, the district and the city as well. Once people see this team in action, I’m sure unified sports will catch fire.
“To see our partners and athletes working together on the court and interacting as teammates in school is what the sport is all about. The students who know about it couldn’t be more excited to see this team play. We will even have a Unified cheering squad for our home games. The coaches are looking forward to seeing the team grow and get better as the season goes along. Our players are excited to show what they can do on the court. It should be a fun and rewarding season for everyone involved.”
Teams will play between six and eight games this year (four to six was the norm last winter). The regular season begins Friday and goes through March 2.
Sixteen-team playoffs in both the North and South regions follow, leading to the state championship game to be held at the new Lisbon High School gymnasium on March 17.
Get out and catch a game. You won’t regret it.
Bangor Daily News staff writer Ernie Clark contributed to this story.
Yarmouth is one of four local schools which will field a unified basketball team this winter.