For many basketball players around the state, the anticipation is building — but not necessarily because tourney time is just three weeks away.

For unified basketball players and cheerleaders from a steadily increasing number of schools, Friday night is opening night for the third season of their sport in Maine.

“We’re starting this year with 52 schools and 48 teams, so we’re seeing more and more cooperative teams,” said Mike Burnham, Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director. “And actually I’ve heard from other schools throughout the preseason that have welcomed some students from other area schools, so that 52 number is probably low.

“We continue to grow,” he said.

Unified basketball teams student-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.

Games consist of two 20-minute halves with the clock stopped for free throws, substitutions and for all whistles during the final minute of each half.

Each team will play between six and eight games, with the regular season scheduled to conclude on March 8.

The top 67 percent of the teams in the North and South divisions based on Heal points will be eligible to compete for a state championship, with regional preliminary-round games set for March 10 followed by quarterfinals on March 14, semifinals on March 16, regional championship games on March 21 and the state final on March 23, at a site to be determined.

New this year will be an end-of-the-season festival for teams that don’t qualify for the regional playoffs as well as some teams that may qualify but instead opt to take part in the festival. That round-robin event is scheduled for March 15 at Yarmouth High School, though a second site may be added depending on the number of teams that choose to participate.

“The end-of-the-year festival is for those teams that want to end their seasons with just a positive round robin and not participate in the playoffs,” said Burnham, “because the playoffs bring with them a whole different mentality and a whole different approach.”

Hampden Academy is the two-time defending unified basketball state champion, edging Lisbon in both the 2015 and 2016 finals.

“We have heard from some schools going in that they’re probably going to choose the festival,” Burnham said, “but if they have a successful season, convincing those kids to not to play in the playoffs may be tough.”

The popularity of unified basketball statewide is reflected in its steady growth from 17 schools in 2015 to 32 teams representing 34 schools last winter to the current count of 48 teams representing 52 schools.

Of this year’s teams, 23 are in the North division and 25 in the South, but other changes to the sport’s structure and rules have been minimal.

“It’s been such a positive endeavor and such a positive experience for so many schools that we don’t want to make major changes and change what has become a great activity,” Burnham said.

Teams in the North are Boothbay, Brewer, Bucksport, Carrabec of North Anson, Cony of Augusta, Dexter, Ellsworth, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft, Hall-Dale of Farmingdale, Hampden Academy, Hermon, Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln/Penobscot Valley of Howland, Messalonskee of Oakland, Mt. Blue of Farmington, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, Nokomis of Newport, Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston, Orono, Skowhegan, Waterville, Winslow and Winthrop.

In the South are Bonny Eagle of Standish, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, Deering/Portland, Edward Little of Auburn, Freeport, Fryeburg Academy, Gray-New Gloucester, Greely of Cumberland, Kennebunk, Leavitt of Turner Center, Lewiston, Lisbon, Marshwood/Noble of the Berwicks, Massabesic of Waterboro, Oak Hill of Wales, Oxford Hills of South Paris, Poland, Sacopee Valley of South Hiram, Thornton Academy of Saco, Wells, Westbrook, Windham, Yarmouth and York.

Burnham said participating schools are encouraged to form unified cheering squads, and the Maine Principals’ Association has developed a waiver that allows any winter cheering squad or individual cheerleaders to continue supporting their school’s unified basketball program, which plays beyond the end of the varsity winter sports season as a standalone activity.

Burnham said the Maine Principals’ Association’s unified sports committee also wants to expand beyond basketball, with unified outdoor track events planned for the first time this spring in conjunction with varsity meets.

This year, at least, unified athletes will be able to compete in the 100-meter dash, 4×100 relay, shot put and long jump.

“For the first year it’s going to be embedded into the regular track season with four events,” Burnham said, “with the goal of hopefully getting to a standalone state championship.”

The introduction of unified sports to Maine in 2015 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.

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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...