Hampden Academy's Madison Mooers (left) and Foxcroft Academy's Gabe Taylor battle for a loose ball during a March 2017 Unified basketball game. The Maine Principals' Association has instituted a two-year hiatus on championship playoffs in the division for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

A record 61 Unified basketball teams representing 67 Maine high schools were free to hold their first preseason practices Thursday.

But how the season should conclude for those teams, which blend student-athletes who have intellectual disabilities with non-varsity partners, is being re-evaluated.

The Maine Principals’ Association, which has sanctioned Unified basketball in cooperation with Special Olympics Maine since 2015, has opted to put its championship playoff format on hiatus for the next two years to be replaced by season-ending daylong festivals.

The major reason for the move is the increasing competitiveness within the traditional playoff format, particularly since the state championship gold ball has been at stake during the sport’s first five years in Maine.

“The general feeling is that the spirit of the game changes a great deal in the playoffs from the regular season,” MPA assistant executive director Mike Bisson said. “What was a feel-good atmosphere with people leaving the games happy became situations with some hard feelings after almost every game with people accusing one of the teams of having one kid score too many points.

“Player dominance was an issue we tried to define and rein in within the developmental model that we’re following. It’s about all kids participating and having a role, and when you get into one player scoring all the points it kind of defeats that purpose,” Bisson said.

The MPA and its Unified Sports Committee use the Unified Sports Player Development Model — under which teammates of higher ability (non-varsity basketball players called Unified partners) assist players of lower ability (Unified athletes) — in great part because lower-ability teammates may not have the necessary sports skills and understanding of the rules.

Rule modifications are made to define player roles and prevent higher-ability players from dominating the game. For example, a Unified partner may not score more than 25 percent of a team’s total points nor play defense or steal the ball from a Unified athlete.

“A big part of it is called meaningful inclusion, making sure every student is involved in our games,” said Ian Frank, director of Unified Champion Schools for Special Olympics Maine and a liaison to the MPA Unified Sports Committee. “Looking at going from the regular season to the postseason we’ve really seen a step backward in a sense when it came to meaningful inclusion and all students being involved in the success of the team in one way, shape or form.

“I think it was a tough decision because ultimately we all want students to experience that championship environment, but at the same time everybody’s got to be on board with that type of competitive environment.”

As the number of Unified basketball programs has grown steadily since the activity’s inception in Maine, more and more programs have opted to end their seasons at a single-day celebratory festival that features round-robin play, rather than in a typical tournament format that leads to the crowning of a single state champion.

“Compared to the regular season we just felt the tournament was a different experience,” said Brewer High School athletic administrator Dave Utterback, who oversees the student coaches for the Witches’ Unified basketball program. “In other words, we’d go through a regular season where depending on situations and who you’re playing there would be some friendly competition. Not that other teams weren’t friendly, but in the one year we did the tournament it was just different for our kids.

“It was very competitive, good competition, but it was different so we opted as a school to just play the participation model, which is to play regular-season games and cap it off with a festival. You’re seeing more schools doing that, and I’m not on the committee but I think that’s why they went away from [the tournament].”

All 16 Unified teams in 2015 and 32 teams in 2016 played in the statewide tournament, but that began to change a year later when the festival format was introduced. Just 17 teams competed in competitive tournament play in 2017 while 31 opted for the festival format.

Thirty-six of the 53 teams chose the festival option in 2018 and 37 of 53 went the same route last winter.

“The trend over the last couple of years has changed drastically to teams really going to those end-of-the-year festivals as opposed to the playoffs because the atmosphere changes and the intensity changes in the more competitive events,” Frank said. “Taking a look at that along with what we were trying to do with the player development model, the game just changed beyond what was happening during the regular season.”

Bisson said the next two years will be used for a re-evaluation to determine how competitive Unified basketball should be in Maine.

“Some states have a competitive model where there are no restrictions on Unified partners scoring. It’s just like a regular basketball game,” he said. “I think what you’ve seen in Maine so far is that it’s inclusive for as many kids as possible, and if you go to that [competitive] model it’s going to leave some kids with hard feelings.”

The 2020 Unified basketball regular season is scheduled to begin Jan. 21 and continue through March 11. The end-of-season festivals are planned the following week around the state.

“The great thing is we’re up to 61 teams, so we’re still seeing growth,” Bisson said. “We’ve still got some pockets in Maine where we’d love to see it develop. We understand the geography of Maine makes it difficult, but if we could get three or four teams Down East and up north in Aroostook County, they could do something in their own areas and it would be great to see that growth as well.”

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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...