It will be hard to top the debut season of high school unified basketball in Maine, which ended on David Manzo’s buzzer-beating hook shot in overtime that gave Hampden Academy a 32-30 victory over Lisbon in last March’s inaugural state championship game.

Organizers and competitors from around the state are determined to build on that success as 2016 preseason practices begin this week. They’re off to a good start.

Thirty-two teams representing 34 schools are on board for the second season of the co-ed sport at the interscholastic level in Maine — nearly double the 17 teams that participated last winter.

“We had a high goal we were hoping for,” said Ian Frank, Project Unify director at Special Olympics Maine, one of the partners in the state’s unified basketball efforts. “Because of the success of the first year, we heard from a lot of athletic directors and principals who saw the product firsthand and said, ‘We’ve got to get involved.’

“We didn’t think we were going to double the number, but we came pretty close,” he said.

Unified basketball teams athletes with developmental disabilities with nonvarsity 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.

Teams will play between six and eight games — up from between four and six games last year — during a regular season that runs from Jan. 22 through March 2, with the 32 teams divided into five scheduling regions to enable participating schools to generate full schedules.

Each team in a region — for example, Region I consists of Brewer, Hampden Academy, Mount Desert Island, Nokomis of Newport, Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston and Orono — will play each other at least once, then may complete their schedules either with rematches or against other teams from around the state.

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.

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’s effect on its participants and the schools involved transcended results on the scoreboard during the first year of the effort.

“The single biggest thing we heard was that it brought the true meaning of participating on a team back into athletics,” said Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Mike Burnham. “Time and time again we heard from schools that this was what it was all about, to give kids a chance to be on a team and represent their school. The impact it had not just on a basketball team but the culture of a school internally was special to see.”

That teamwork between the unified athletes and their nonvarsity partners will expand this winter to the cheering ranks.

After several teams — particularly Oceanside — organically fielded their own unified cheering squads last winter, the Maine Principals’ Association opted to waive the sports season policy to allow winter cheering squads to root on their unified basketball teams and to offer the chance to incorporate unified athletes on their squads for those games.

“Last year a few schools took it upon themselves to have a cheering squad,” said Frank. “They had a few students with intellectual disabilities that might not have been interested in basketball but wanted to be part of what was going on, and now the [Maine Principals’ Association] is encouraging schools to do it.”

Among schools that will offer unified basketball for the first time this winter — Special Olympics of Maine provides seed money to help new programs get started — is Brewer.

“Just hearing people like [athletic administrators] Mike Bisson at Hampden and Paul Vachon at Cony talk about how rewarding it was and how it built camaraderie throughout their schools was impressive,” said Brewer athletic administrator Dave Utterback. “They talked about how it brought the students together and how they really rallied around it.

“Then talking to people around here, we thought it would be a good fit for us,” he said.

Brewer plans to field unified basketball and cheering squads, with Utterback volunteering as the head basketball coach and Nancy Snowdeal guiding the cheerleaders.

“We have a component of unified cheering within our fall cheering squad as it is,” said Utterback. “I think we were one of the first schools that did that four years ago, so it makes sense for us to do it on the winter side, too.

Utterback also plans to involve other students in organizational elements of the sport such as game management responsibilities and as assistant coaches.

“We really have a lot of kids with an interest in teaching, coaching or sports management later on,” he said. “So for us it’s kind of an opportunity to give them an on-the-ground internship before they go on to college to see if this is what they want to do down the road.”

Such interaction among athletes, partners, faculty and the general school community was at the heart of the sport’s initial success.

Frank expects a similar byproduct to emerge again this winter.

“The best thing we found out that happened last year were all the things that happened off the court,” Frank said. “The traveling to games, putting on the uniform with the school colors, playing in a home gym, socializing with students that typically you wouldn’t have, the barriers that got broken down and the doors that got opened, obviously the things that are happening are very positive to all of us and the students involved.

“It’s a place where people can shine, it’s a great avenue for sports at its truest form. There are so many life lessons that really come out of this program it’s hard not to be able to sell this,” he said.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...