After nearly two years in development, the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine are bringing unified basketball to the state’s high school sport scene.

The unified sport — which has been available in New England states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island for several years now — partners special education students (athletes) with regular education students (partners) and uses rules slightly different than the traditional version of the sport.

“You’re seeing unified sports across the country becoming popular. It makes sense for us to have a program here in Maine,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA. “Through contacts through the Special Olympics Maine folks we set up a meeting and started the conversation and here we are.”

The journey to making unified basketball a sanctioned MPA sport in Maine has been long in the making. According to Burnham, he and Special Olympics Maine representative Ian Frank met with members of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association in spring 2013 to discuss how the neighboring state went about launching its program.

Jeffrey Collins is new to his position as executive director of the New Hampshire association but was involved with the process three years ago in its initial stages in that state — which offers unified volleyball, soccer, track and field and basketball — when he was serving as the principal of Portsmouth High School.

“It’s something we’ve had in place for a couple years and it’s a fantastic way to get more kids involved, representing their schools,” Collins said. “It’s been a wonderful thing.

“… It’s one of those things that transcends sports.”

Following their talks with the New Hampshire association, Burnham and Frank formed a committee along with Leavitt principal Eben Shaw, Lisbon teacher Jody Benson and athletic directors Jeff Ramich (Brunswick), Mike Bisson (Hampden) and Dave Shapiro (Greely).

Committee members contacted the New Hampshire association for advice, as well as the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, which has offered unified volleyball since 2010 and unified basketball since 2011.

“We just talked to them about what we’ve done here, kind of how we got it started and what direction we’ve been going in,” said Mike Lunney, assistant executive director of the Rhode Island league.

Like Collins, Lunney said the reception of the sport in Rhode Island has been overwhelming.

“We talk about it and it’s one of the most worthwhile programs that we have in terms of inclusion and acceptance in schools,” Lunney said. “There are populations in the schools that now have an opportunity to participate for their school. The initial push was obviously giving those kids an opportunity to participate but it’s also the partners, the benefit that they get from being a part of this.”

MAKING PLANS A REALITY

After nearly two years of planning, the MPA and Special Olympics Maine are ready to turn plans into reality. Recently, 17 schools — including Cony, Oak Hill, Waterville, Messalonskee and Winthrop — had expressed an interest in joining for the first season.

Much like the early stages of developing unified basketball as an MPA offered sport, local school officials are now figuring out the logistics of how to make it work within their own schools.

“We’re still trying to wrap our head around it,” Oak Hill athletic director Jim Palmer said.

Unified basketball is just like any sport in that it brings certain hurdles to the table. Money is one of the biggest challenges in the seemingly ever-shrinking field of high school athletics. Finding funding for programs is an obstacle every athletic director faces, yet Special Olympics Maine has stepped up to offset those costs for programs willing participate this season.

“Special Olympics Maine is offering $3,000 to each high school to join the Maine Principals’ Association unified basketball league,” Frank said. “That money is there as of today.”

Will it be there tomorrow, though?

Frank thinks so, although he did note since the money comes from an annual grant from the Department of Education and Special Olympics Inc. that nothing is guaranteed.

In Rhode Island, a similar offer was made from the state’s Special Olympics affiliate to the interscholastic league for six start-up teams in the program’s first year.

Chris Cobain is the athletic director at East Greenwich High School in East Greenwich, R.I., and was in the same position in 2010 that 17 athletics director in Maine are in now.

Funds were still available for the program in the second year, but each school was asked to pick up part of the tab the following year. Cobain did not hesitate to answer the request.

“After Year 1 of doing it for free they came back to us and said, ‘What if you have to incur some costs?’ I said, ‘I don’t give a crap,'” Cobain said. “You can’t put a price tag on it. I’ll cut a regular program before I cut unified if it becomes a financial issue.”

Cobain faced the same questions many athletic directors in Maine are currently addressing.

How do I find enough gym time? What if no one comes out for the team? How do I get partners to sign up? Can I afford to pay for even more buses?

All those questions and many more were far outweighed by the results of the product, Cobain said, and the school found solutions. Since the program at East Greenwich started, the Avengers have two national and four state championships in unified volleyball and one state title in basketball.

By far the most rewarding part of unified basketball, according to Cobain, has been its ability to change lives.

“Best bullying program you could ever put into your school. Best, by far,” Cobain said. “The most incredible way to reach kids that are never recognized and to really teach kids to think more about someone else other than themselves.

“When you have some pretty high-end, socially stable kids diving in full bore these kids walk down our hallways now and they are Avengers. I don’t know that they could have said that before this happened.”

NOT ENTIRELY NEW

Unified basketball may be new as an MPA-sanctioned sport but it is not new to Maine.

Over the past few years Special Olympics Maine has held one-day tournaments at the University of Southern Maine and this past spring Oak Hill junior Dalton Therrien — the starting quarterback on the recently crowned Class D champion football team — participated as a partner on a team representing the school.

“To see the kids go out and play their hearts out for something that they don’t necessarily get to do is great because they’re having so much fun,” Therrien said. “It just puts a smile on your face to see them play.”

The competition level in these contests is not quite at the level of varsity basketball, but it’s far from non-competitive.

“It was kind of high paced,” Oak Hill junior Sam Guilford said. “There were some teams that were awesome, like hardcore, and there were others that were, eh, good but they just needed to improve here and there and all that — but it was fun. Playing sports with your friends it’s … having fun to me is all that matters.”

Added Therrien: “It’s the biggest smile on their face when they’re screaming out calls and ‘you’ve got him and you’ve got him!’ It’s awesome.”

Of course, not everyone shares the same attitude as Therrien. Education has emphasized inclusion in the classroom for over a decade but there will always be some students that assume having special needs is the same as lacking intelligence.

“It stinks to say, but at the high school level it happens a lot because some people just don’t take the time to really get to know who they are,” Therrien said. “A lot of kids I know in this school are very, very bright and have a great future. They’re very smart.”

The addition of unified basketball should only reinforce what teachers and students have worked toward in the classroom of a singular student body.

“You find victories here and there in little things and now they have a larger piece to go for too,” said Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton, who spent 20 years in special education prior to taking over the AD job. “It really is what you would use for the word ‘inclusion,’ not only at the educational but at the sports level.”

“I just think it’s a nice opportunity for our entire student body, not specifically for those who want to do varsity athletics but for those that may not want to try out for a varsity team and for those who also would be designated as unified student athletes,” Waterville AD Heidi Bernier said. “Honestly, I think we have a pretty welcoming and accepting community here at Waterville. …Our student body is pretty accepting of all, I think this will emphasize that.”

Even those who did not field a team this winter tend to agree. At Gardiner, AD Steve Ouellette said that he was aware unified basketball was being added but that they had not yet fully explored the topic.

“It’s a great opportunity to give students that don’t traditionally participate in sports an opportunity but we just haven’t gotten there yet,” Ouellette said. “It’s definitely something that we will wait and see in the future.”

This was a sentiment shared by most in New Hampshire and Rhode Island when the two states added unified sports. Both states have seen significant growth since starting programs, particularly from the first year to the second.

Burnham and Frank are hoping the sport follows a similar trend in Maine.

“I see this definitely growing, blossoming into at least another season — in particular maybe the track and field season in the spring,” Frank said. “I just see this as a great opportunity for high schools and students that typically don’t get this opportunity that are going to get their opportunity to represent their school and compete in these sports.”

“The next step once we get through basketball is we’re going to look at other sports,” Burnham said. “What we’d like to do is have some sort of a unified offering in the fall as well as something in the spring.”

The start of the unified basketball season is slated for early next year as teams will be allowed to begin practicing Jan. 5, with the official start to the season set for Jan. 23.

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley


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