AUGUSTA, Maine — Ken Lindlof and Paul Vachon, two of the state’s most successful high school basketball coaches of the last 35 years, were matching wits on the sidelines at Cony High School earlier this week when suddenly Lindlof and his team were assessed a technical foul.

“I didn’t have too many when I coached before, you’d probably have to go back at least 15 years to find the last one,” said Lindlof, who won nearly 250 games including the 1985 Class A state championship during 21 years as the boys varsity coach at Waterville High School.

But this penalty was not borne from anger over an official’s call or any other game-related circumstance.

The technical, assessed when Waterville’s second-year co-ed unified basketball team sent a sixth player into the game, was pre-planned with Vachon and game officials to provide a wheelchair-bound Cony player the opportunity to shoot some free throws.

“This is not as much about being competitive as it is about celebrating everybody’s opportunity to achieve,” said Lindlof of unified basketball, which blends student-athletes with developmental disabilities with student partners who are not varsity basketball players on school-based teams.

Unified basketball teams play six- to eight-game regular-season schedules, followed by North and South regional tournaments that begin Friday and are open to all 32 participating schools statewide. Winners of the regionals will play for the state championship on March 17 at Lisbon High School.

Lindlof, Vachon and Messalonskee of Oakland unified basketball coach Tommy Hill are all familiar with the pursuit of state titles.

Vachon led Cony’s girls varsity program to seven Class A state titles while compiling a 451-50 record during his 25-year coaching career.

Hill coached boys varsity squads at Erskine Academy of South China, Maranacook of Readfield, Winthrop and Messalonskee over 16 seasons, taking Winthrop to the 2003 Western Maine Class C crown.

The satisfaction these veteran coaches are deriving from their unified basketball tenures is different but no less rewarding.

“The key to this is that it’s more about the kids going out there, having fun and being involved with other kids in a competitive-type environment,” said Hill, who also is the athletic administrator at Messalonskee. “Really a lot of it from both sides is making sure the kids have a good experience.

“The wins and losses are very secondary to everything else we’re getting out of it,” he said.

Vachon, both a Maine Basketball Hall of Fame and Maine Sports Hall of Fame inductee, had no hesitation about coaching his school’s unified team when approached before last season.

“I’ve taught middle school and elementary school, and in my classrooms I’ve experienced the world of special-needs children, so for me it was easy to adjust to because they’re kids who love to play,” said Vachon, who is Cony’s athletic administrator.

“It’s fun, and not only that, it’s very rewarding in many different ways. I’m enjoying it tremendously,” he said.

Maine’s unified basketball program, founded by a partnership among the Maine Principals’ Association, Special Olympics of Maine and Project Unify, a branch of Special Olympics dedicated to increasing athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities, has nearly doubled this winter from the 17 schools that participated in the inaugural 2014-15 season.

Within that growth comes varying approaches regarding the competitive level of the sport from school to school.

“With Vach and me and Tommy who have been varsity coaches, this is a wonderful thing, and for the most part we walk a fine line because we want our kids to compete but not be overly competitive at the expense of the other team,” said Lindlof. “We’re always mindful of the needs of the other team when it comes to competition, and competition takes a back seat to being able to celebrate the success the kids have whether it’s our team or the other team.

“For these kids being in the moment, being in the competitive arena, being part of a team and celebrating achievement are what it’s about,” he said.

Unified basketball rules mandate that at least 75 percent of the points in each game are scored by the student-athletes, rather than the helpers.

At Waterville, the student partners are encouraged to focus more on passing and rebounding, leaving the vast majority of the scoring to the student-athletes.

“Our kids get excited when we score a lot,” said Lindlof. “There’s reason for celebration when someone scores a basket because it’s not an easy thing to do.”

At Cony, the student partners are already established as peer helpers who also support the unified student-athletes in the classroom.

“Last year in a game I had five athletes out there at one time,” said Vachon. “The opposing coach looked at me and said, ‘You can’t do that, you need two peer helpers out there.’ I told him my athletes were better basketball players than my peer helpers, and it was true.”

The primary goals these coaches share in guiding their unified teams are to teach their players the sport and to help create a positive experience for all involved.

“I place a premium on skill development,” said Lindlof. “When we go to practice, we work on dribbling right-handed, dribbling left-handed, catching the ball with two hands, the basics. Today I saw two of my kids dribble with their left hands on the left side and then try to shoot a left-handed layup, and it was pretty gratifying to see them attempt to do what we’re teaching them in practice.”

Such cause for celebration for these coaches often stems from circumstances less obvious than a play well executed.

“The thing that’s nice to see is kids coming out of their shells who were scared to death to go on the court last year,” said Hill. “They’re now excited to be out there, they want to be out there, and they’ve improved to the point where they can do more things.

“That’s good to see at any coaching level, but watching these kids succeed and have a good experience becomes indescribable at times,” he said.

That Hill, Vachon and Lindlof came back to the sport that gave them such satisfaction earlier in their coaching careers in this new capacity really should come as no surprise. It’s just one more chance to return to their professional roots.

“I think we’re all just teachers teaching,” said Vachon. “I’ve always said that about coaches, that we’re teachers, and it’s very rewarding to see someone improve throughout the year whether it’s from playing basketball or reading a book.

“It’s just as exciting for me to see a kid hit a shot now as it was when I was coaching my girls team. If a kid hits a [3-pointer], you’ll see me just as vocal and excited on the sideline as I was before. My philosophy hasn’t changed as far as excitement and enthusiasm is concerned, it’s probably even raised up a notch.”

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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...