Christopher Verschoor on the Brewer unified team drives the ball down the court as Isaiah Walker of Orono defends during a Jan. 29, 2020, game at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

While the high school basketball tournament moves into high gear this weekend, the Unified basketball season is now in regular-season form.

Unified basketball matches players with intellectual disabilities (Unified athletes) with non-varsity players (Unified partners), and uses rule modifications to define player roles and prevent the Unified partners from dominating the game.

“If you talk to many ADs it’s the best thing we do,” Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Mike Bisson said. “It is exciting to have this back and see the smiles and joy around Unified basketball. I don’t care who you are, when you leave the gym after a Unified basketball game you’re usually feeling pretty good about life.”

Unified basketball returns this year after being suspended in 2020 and limited in scope last winter due to COVID-19, and there are signals the sport is still growing after at least one Aroostook County school approved its addition as a club sport.

“The kids are excited so it’s rewarding to see their excitement when we do have practice and we’re able to bring them together and interact,” Brewer School Department athletic administrator Dave Utterback said.

“Every year is a different year in Unified so it’s new partners with new student coaches with the way we do things. It really allows the Unified athletes to branch out their network of friends by meeting new people. You watch relationships develop in the hallways and in the cafeteria, and that’s what makes Unified really special.”

Orono High School played its first two Unified basketball games of the season last week, and that response was similar.

“I don’t think it’s any different from any other sport that we’re just so happy to be able to offer again,” Archer said. “The kids were excited to start after missing last season.”

This is the seventh season of a collaboration between the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine that not only promotes physical fitness, but also a spirit of inclusion within each school.

Approximately 60 high schools from around the state are participating in Unified basketball this winter, about the same number that competed during the last full season in 2019.

Teams were allowed to begin playing regular-season games on Jan. 21, but most waited until early February to begin what for many teams will be a schedule of six to eight games through March 11.

Teams may participate in multi-team, end-of-season festivals from March 14-22.

The MPA is handling COVID-19 complications for Unified basketball in the same manner it has for other sports, following Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations but leaving the ultimate decisions for regular-season contests to the schools involved.

“We’ve left that at the school level but we’re treating that activity like we are the others,” Bisson said. “We know that there are some students that might be at risk healthwise so we’re letting that decision be made by the families and the schools at that level.”

Unified basketball may be making its way to Aroostook County for the first time this year.

“Seeing what it’s been able to do in schools across the state in bringing kids together, especially with the different types of populations that will be intersected by this, it can offer a lot,” Houlton Middle-High School athletic administrator Jon Solomon said.

The Houlton area school district recently approved Unified basketball as a club sport, and Solomon is working with colleagues in Caribou and Presque Isle in an attempt to bring a modest schedule of games to The County beginning after February vacation.

“We’re excited about possible growth into Aroostook County,” Bisson said. “We’ve been hoping for several years for an Aroostook pod of three or four schools and that might help it grow in some of the smaller schools, perhaps through forming informal cooperative teams.

“We’re excited that hopefully the bigger schools are working to get it started for us.”

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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...