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High school basketball

Net gain: Unified has profound impact on athletic leaders

Heartwarming court program is highlight for players, coaches, fans during winter season
By Ken Waltz | May 19, 2020
Photo by: Mark Haskell Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter.

The sense of excitement, pride, camaraderie and satisfying personal achievement is on the face and in the mannerisms of each of the "special" student-athletes. And, of course, like the glow of the brightest sun, the beaming smiles simply light up the gymnasium.

The "inspiring" court performances are enough to make even those with the most impressive athletic backgrounds sit back, take a deep breath and reassess their priorities in life.

It makes those driven, highly-successful adults realize that, for all the personal accolades they and their teams/schools have achieved, what these "special" student-athletes do for a few weeks each winter is perhaps more impressive and, of course, equally as rewarding.

That is because we are not talking about coaches looking to scheme exotic defenses to stop an opponent cold in its tracks, draw up ways to get the team's amazing 1,000-point scorer going or to bring a squad of 12 to 15 teenagers with varying levels of emotional and physical maturity together in focus, spirit and skill to make a run at the coveted gold.

We are, instead, talking about teenagers with special needs figuring out, perhaps for the first time, the best way to run up the court, catch, dribble and shoot the ball. And when said athletes do get the confidence to toss the ball up and see it go through the net, well, then it is a fourth-of-July celebration on the court. Jubilation. Pride. Non-stop ear-to-ear smiles.

So life-changing lessons for the "special" athletes, partners, officials, fans and, of course, coaches. To say the sport has a profound, lasting positive affect on all participants would, well, be an understatement.

Thus is the world of high school unified basketball. Where halftime sing-a-longs and dancing — think Village People's fun, high-energy "YMCA" — on-court applause for opponents, helping one another off the floor and even, in some instances, passing the ball to the other team to give someone an opportunity to also experience the special feeling of making-a-basket glory.

There are no bitter, longstanding, deeply-routed rivalries as with other traditional school sports teams. It is all for one and one for all — in the quest to have pure, unwavering, undeniable fun.

Unified basketball, on every level, is the epitome of athletic sportsmanship at its best.

Working together

The program is simple. Young partners and Special Olympians work together to build a mountain eye-opening — and, in some cases, humbling — life lessons.

Unified basketball combines Special Olympian athletes and general student-athletes (partners) in five-on-five competition. The sport has been popular in the state since it became sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association in 2015.

The two most crucial components that make the game different from traditional basketball is there can be no more than two "partners" on the court at any given time with the Special Olympian athletes, and the partners can account for no more than 25 percent of the team's total points. Teams also are only permitted to play half-court defense.

This season, the MPA opted not to hold postseason tournaments for unified basketball, as it opted for end-of-season play days and jamborees. However, those late-season events were canceled due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

The virus cut short what was another remarkable and fun-filled season of unified hoops.

In the Midcoast, the program has grown and now five high schools — Oceanside of Rockland, Camden Hills of Rockport, Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Belfast and Mount View of Thorndike — sponsor the sport.

The sport has had a positive, life-altering affect on dozens of area teenagers and has given some of the most athletically-successful older people a chance to see school sports in, well, a different light. A softer, more pleasing and deeply emotional glow.

While the special-needs athletes enjoy every second of their court time, so many others find something new, something better, inside them, include the partners, traditional high school students who may even be standouts on other school athletic teams.

Unified basketball, and Special Olympic sports in general, have greatly impacted the views of even those at the top of their games — who have historically realized playing, coaching and administrative school sports at the highest level.

Hall-of-famers amazed

Take Jeff Hart. His resumé is, well, impressive, to state the obvious. He is the athletic director at Camden Hills after being basketball and baseball coach at the school for years.

In fact, Hart collected more than 500 career high school boys basketball coaching victories, six gold balls, led the Windjammers to 29 regional playoff appearances, captured 10 regional championships, 13 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B titles, enjoyed three undefeated seasons and earned numerous coach-of-the-year honors.

He is in the Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Maine and New England basketball halls of fame.

And he coaches the Windjammer unified hoop squad.

"Obviously, I have always enjoyed the competitiveness of coaching high school sports. But there is just something about the unified experience. I have learned so much from the unified athletes. The other beautiful thing about it is the atmosphere in the gym. Parents, teachers, and classmates are all there to cheer these kids on and they are so appreciative of what they are watching. And the athletes are so appreciative of the crowd that is there to cheer them on. There is no way that anyone could go watch, and not feel good inside."

Hart said he is pleased his school offers the program.

"Unified basketball/sports is one of the best things that we do in athletics," Hart said. "I was lucky when I was a student at [the University of Maine] to have a professor (Glenn Reif) introduce the physical education majors to Special Olympics. Since then I have always loved working with those student-athletes, and to see unified sports come into play here the last couple of years, is really special. [Former school athletic director] Steve Alex brought it on board here, and I think it will continue to grow over the next few years.

Terry Kenniston, set to retire as athletic director at BAHS, said bringing unified basketball to his school is one of the most rewarding things he accomplished in his tenure as the Lion athletic leader.

This from a man who was an incredible, decorated three-sport high school athletic standout (he scored well over 1,000 points without the benefit of the 3-point shot in the 1970s), college basketball player and post-graduate coach, storied high school basketball coach and baseball umpire and a member of the Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame.

"It is heartwarming to watch these athletes as they play a sport they truly love," Kenniston said. "The joy and excitement they display while playing validates the decision we made as a community to give them this opportunity."

Culture change on court, in hallways

Molly Bishop, athletic director at Oceanside, a standout athlete at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle and Medomak Valley in Waldoboro with a highly-successful coaching career (her Richmond girls basketball teams were perennial state Class D contenders), said unified basketball is one of the best programs any school could offer.

"At Oceanside, we began unified the first year that it was offered though the MPA, six years ago. After having seen the great work that our special education department has done to make sure that all students, regardless of ability, are accepted as part of our school community, adding unified basketball was a natural progression.

"Personally, having coached multiple sports at various levels, watching the joy of kids just having fun playing a game has been the highlight of the program. So often in sports we as fans, parents, coaches and players forget that games are supposed to be fun. The support for the program and of all the students involved is fun to witness on game days and practices, but seeing it carry over to the hallways embodies the idea of unified."

Matt Lash, who has played and coached basketball at the college level and is the longtime, highly-respective athletic director at Medomak Valley, called what the unified athletes do "inspiring."

"I wish we had sponsored unified basketball sooner," he said. "I am grateful to the administration and the school board for supporting our program. Tracie McLain and Paul Smeltzer deserve all the credit for getting it off the ground and securing the grant to fund the program for the first two years. Watching the athletes and partners of both teams work together on the court is inspiring. Each game we host is the highlight of my week. It is 1.5 hours of encouraging, learning, and smiling. All students are supported and everyone involved is rewarded. The officials leave the gym saying it's the most fun they have all winter. I couldn't be more proud of our athletes, partners, student-assistants, and coaches."

Tom Lynch, athletic director at Mount View in Thorndike, sums up the unified hoops experience this way: "Mount View is now in its fourth year of high school unified basketball and first year of middle school unified basketball. While it does add on to the workload of an AD it is worth every minute of it. If you went around and picked out only the good things from athletic competition the result would look like unified sports. You will never see happier kids, more enthusiastic fans and tremendous sportsmanship. Our fans cheer for both teams. If a player accidentally knocks someone down they stop and help them up. They all stand for the [national] anthem and clap for the other team during introductions. Everyone shakes hands after the game and sometimes we all dance at halftime. It is one of the most fun atmospheres ever. If anyone hasn't experienced it you owe yourself a trip to a unified game."

The rosters of the 2020 Midcoast unified high school basketball teams were:

Belfast, guided by head coach Sara Bryant, included seniors Tori Philbrook, Kaitlyn Elliott, Junne Robertson-McIntire, Josh Chun, Mercedes Curtis, Jonathan Duso, Ari Berry and Kaleb Wing; juniors Cameron Watts and Madison Stevens; sophomores Tobias Jones, Isabella Degraff, Jordan Drinkwater and Mykaila Willard; and freshmen Stella Collins, Brynne Sawyer, Jackie Batty, Audra Faulkingham, Kyle Payson and Gabe Kelley.

Camden Hills, guided by head coach Jeff Hart, included Frances Ostensen, Nick Brawn and Jerrid Farwell; juniors Blaine Cook, Joshua Henning, Sam Moody, Alexandra Southworth and Devin Short; sophomores Samuel Brownawell and Tom Roberts; and freshmen Jacob Borzelli, Hannah Flaherty, Autumn Foster, Avery Laite, Madison Marshall and Saxon Smith.

Medomak Valley, guided by head coach Tracie McLain and assistant Paul Smeltzer, included seniors Trevor Hynd, Angel Mckay, Von McLaughlin, Natalie Shields and Michaela Staples; juniors Zach Cheesman, Isabella LaFrance and Ethan Reed; sophomores Tyler Mckay, Lizzi Swan and Grace White; and freshman Hailey Campbell.

Mount View, guided by head coach Vincent Vannah and assistant coach Barbara Dolloff, included seniors Brendan Savoy, Justice Savoy, Nick Elkins and Austin Grotton; juniors Starr Beaulieu, Jasmyne Nerderman, Tamika Henry and Jen Littlefield; sophomore Emily Kendall; and freshmen Donoven Queener and Brayden Bartlett.

Oceanside, guided by head coach Joanna Hall and assistant coach Colleen Rickard, included Krista Butler, Julia Clough, Jackett Daggett, Kaytlyn Pierce and Angel Seiders; juniors Aidan Bonzagni, Keegin Colby, Olivia Dougherty, Ryan Morse, Ian Thumith, Sam Vose and Ryan Warren; sophomores Haley Callahan and Byron Radley; and freshmen John Burchett, Ben Couter, Brian Farnham and Colin Richards.

Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Medomak Valley at Belfast unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Mount View at Camden Hills unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Mark Haskell)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Scene from Camden Hills at Oceanside unified high school basketball this winter. (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
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