HAMPDEN, Maine — Much has changed in the second year of unified high school basketball in Maine, but the upcoming state title game will have a familiar look.
Defending champion Hampden Academy, which edged Lisbon on a last-second shot in overtime of the 2015 final, will meet the Greyhounds again in a battle of the unbeatens for the gold ball after both teams won regional crowns Tuesday.
Lisbon defeated Deering-Portland 44-24 in the South championship game, and Hampden topped Lewiston 46-26 in the North final.
“We’re ready to win the gold ball again,” said Hampden sophomore Kenny Brewer-Frazee, who scored a game-high 22 points, all during the first three periods as the top-ranked Broncos gradually pulled away from a Lewiston team that emerged from the sixth seed with three straight postseason victories.
Hampden and Lisbon, both 12-0, will play at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lisbon High School’s new gymnasium.
“I can’t believe it,” said Hampden coach Andrea Lee of the looming rematch. “Well, I can kind of believe it, they’re pretty darned good.”
Isaiah Palmer and Tyler Hewey added eight points each for Hampden against Lewiston, and Zach Ewing scored four points. Kelsey Tripp and Robbie Martin scored two points each.
Caleb Beaupre paced Lewiston (9-3) with 13 points, and Connor Jewett and Theresa Morin scored four points each. Travis Maier added three points, and Mohamed Khalid scored two.
“This is a blast,” said Bill County, who was in his first year as Lewiston’s unified basketball coach after a long career as a varsity football coach both with the Blue Devils and at Leavitt of Turner Center.
“In all the years I’ve coached — and when you’re a football coach it’s obviously pretty competitive — this is the most fun I think I’ve ever had. These kids are inspirational,” he said.
Among the players on Lewiston’s roster was County’s son Josh County, and the parent within the veteran coach was hard-pressed to hold back tears as he described the effect the sport has had on his child.
“My son, being a coach’s son, has been on the sidelines since he was 5 years old watching athletes come and go, whether it’s coming to our house for dinner or all the other things that come with being a coach. This is the first time he’s actually got to be one of the players, and what this does for him is phenomenal,” Bill County said.
“It’s really given him the chance to be one of those kids he grew up idolizing,” 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 for a team, and the partners may score no more than 25 percent of their team’s points.
The sport, a partnership among the Maine Principals’ Association, Special Olympics Maine and Project Unify, a branch of Special Olympics, increased its number of teams statewide this winter to 32 from 17 during its inaugural season.
“And we’ve continued to hear the wonderful stories, the opportunities this sport provides for these kids and what it means for the school itself,” said Maine Principals’ Association Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham.
Burnham expects the growth to continue, but it won’t come without some growing pains. In the case of unified basketball, that involves the level of competitiveness from team to team.
“I think there’s some question in the state of Maine as to whether they might split it up and have some teams that are going to compete for a gold ball and some that just wish to play the season,” said County. “I understand that. You kind of get a feel early in a game for which teams you’re playing that are going to be competitive and which teams are more concerned about playing time.
“I told my kids all season-long that we were going to even out the playing time, and then come the playoffs, we were going to try to win the games. They did a great job of accepting that,” he said.
Hampden’s Lee shares a similar sentiment.
“You must uphold the integrity of the game of basketball, so absolutely there should be competitiveness,” she said. “The fact that we’re unified, we’ve already won in that sense. We are unified, and the rewards that come off the court are greater than those on the court. We just happen to use basketball as our means.”
That competitiveness was on full display as Hampden and Lewiston met for the first time this winter, particularly early in the contest before the Broncos outscored the Blue Devils 10-4 in the third quarter to build a 32-17 cushion.
“It’s very important [to win],” said Hampden senior partner Kyle Townsend, the starting goalie on Hampden’s varsity soccer team last fall. “But we’re unified, we’re all one, and that’s what matters.”