The Presque Isle Unified basketball team at the high school gym on Jan. 26, front row from left are Brooklyn McIntyre, Addison Hafford, Braydon Abbott, and Destiny Theriault; back from from left are assistant coach Denise Condon, Logan Smith, Jocelyn Gagnon, Rylee Brown, Rosalyn Buck Anna Jandreau, Brady Castonguay, Ryley Gilliam, and coach Carl Michaud. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County now has two opportunities for players with intellectual disabilities to play basketball.

Presque Isle launched a unified basketball team this month, joining Maine’s growing trend to involve students with learning and developmental disabilities in the game. Houlton High School introduced The County’s first unified team a year ago.

The teams are sanctioned as varsity teams by the Maine Principals’ Association, working with Special Olympics. The idea is that by training together and playing together, athletes with and without intellectual disabilities gain friendship and understanding, according to Special Olympics Maine.

“It is a heartwarming experience for all involved,” said Michael Bisson, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “It gives Unified athletes the chance to be part of a team and compete with their peers. For the Unified partners, it gives them an opportunity to mentor and coach their schoolmates.”

The activity pairs players with intellectual disabilities with non-varsity “partner” players. The association hopes the sport continues to grow in Aroostook County and possibly into Washington County as well, Bisson said.

Presque Isle started its season Jan. 2. The season goes until March 10.

The sport has grown tremendously in the rest of the state, which now has 65 unified teams, said Presque Isle head coach Carl Michaud.

“The Maine Principals’ Association put this kind of team together to allow opportunities for individuals that may not have all the opportunities to play on sports teams,” said Carl Michaud, head coach for Presque Isle’s Unified team.

Michaud and Mark White, the athletic director for Presque Isle, called for players to join the team in November.

Four athletes have joined the coed team, along with eight partners. Both athletes and partners were excited at the prospect of joining unified basketball when Michaud and White visited classrooms to drum up support, Michaud said.

Some partners act as managers or scorekeepers during games, Michaud said.

Denise Condon will work with Michaud as a volunteer assistant coach.

Presque Isle will play Houlton and Caribou teams, but the games haven’t been scheduled yet, Michaud said. He anticipates four to six games in the season.

Caribou Community School is still in the early stages of looking for athletes and partners for its team, athletic director Evan Graves said.

One requirement is partners must not already be on the varsity basketball team, which gives other students an opportunity to be involved with the sport, Graves said.

The Presque Isle team practices Wednesdays and Thursdays in the high school gym.

Michaud hopes other athletic directors will form their own teams in Aroostook County.

“Hopefully some teams will start up as well, but also there’s an opportunity for collaborations,” Michaud said. “I do know there’s plenty of teams in the state that have more than one town creating a team like this.”