Winthrop High School’s unified basketball team has progressed far more than coach Joan Thompson could have envisioned in the sport’s inaugural season in Maine. So Thompson installed a couple of plays to help the players, and even those that play for the other team enjoy the sport even more.

One play in particular is the ultimate demonstration in sportsmanship.

“One of our plays is called ‘Shoot again,’ and we call out the number of a player on the other team who hasn’t scored yet,” Thompson said. “If a player on the other team misses a shot, we get the rebound and hand it back to the player who missed until they score.”

Unified basketball completed its inaugural regular season on Thursday, and local coaches involved in the sport say it has been a rousing success.

Unified sports partner special education students, who are called athletes, with regular education students, referred to as partners. During play, a team must have three athletes and two partners on the floor at all times. Partners are not allowed to score more than 25 percent of a team’s total points.

With funding help of Maine Special Olympics, the Maine Principals’ Association launched unified basketball in January with 17 high schools in the state participating.

Teams could play a minimum of four games and a maximum of eight. Standings are determined by Heal points, just like in regular basketball, but instead of two-thirds of the teams making the tournament, everyone will be playing when the playoffs get underway next week.

Wins and losses are far from the primary objective of unified basketball, though. Thompson said it’s about teaching the athletes pride, dignity and respect.

With the support of athletic director Joel Stoneton, the school district and the Winthrop community, Thompson has seen a number of her special education athletes come out of their shell over the course of the Ramblers’ four-game season. One player went from refusing to run up and down the court during a game or practice earlier in the season to making several trips back and forth during a recent game. Players have also pulled together to help their teammates out if they are uncomfortable or vulnerable to physical contact on the court.

Winthrop played three of its four games at home this season and drew about 100 students to one game, which added to the experience for the athletes.

“The excitement of the crowd just gets my athletes so pumped and excited,” Thompson said.

The athletes are excited to know the season isn’t over yet, even if all of them don’t completely understand how a tournament works, Thompson said.

“What they understand is we’re not done playing yet, and they like that,” Thompson said. “What I want them to understand is even though we’re winning, we’re still playing fair. But if we play well, we’re going to play again and we’re going to play again.”

The Ramblers were 3-1 during the regular season, which had them sitting atop the Class A East Heal points standings as of Thursday night, pending the results of the season’s last remaining game between Leavitt and Brunswick. If Winthrop holds the top seed, it will host the winner of the preliminary round game between Waterville and Messalonskee on Tuesday night, with a tentative starting time of 6 p.m.

• • •

Cony finished its regular season at 3-2 and will probably be going on the road for its Class A East quarterfinal game next week. Coach Paul Vachon said his athletes are eager to keep going.

“They are excited,” he said. “I don’t think they want the season to end.”

With this being the first unified sports season in Maine, everyone has been learning as it has gone along — coaches, athletes, administrators and even game officials.

“Everyone has been trying to get a grasp on how we play this,” said Vachon, Cony’s athletic director who ended a seven-year hiatus from coaching to lead the unified team. “But I think it’s been great for our athletes. It’s been great for our school. The camaraderie built between our athletes and our partners has been incredible.”

“It’s been a great lesson to not only our athletes, but the kids that have come to our games,” he added.

In the true spirit of high school sports, athletes have learned things about themselves they might not have without unified, Vachon said.

“I truly believe they’ve gotten a lot more confidence about themselves,” he said. “It’s just amazing seeing a lot of the skills they actually have that they never knew they had.”

Other students have learned about the value of hard work from watching the athletes perform, and have been inspired by their example.

Vachon recalled students packing the gym during Cony’s recent “Diversity Day” to watch athletes from the unified team take on other students in a basketball game. He estimated 15 students approached him about participating in unified basketball afterwards.

One of the keys to the success of the program has been the partners. Many of them don’t even play basketball. In Cony’s case, most are peer helpers in the school’s special needs program.

“They have been fantastic for us, and I know for every other team, too,” he said. “It’s been incredible to watch them coach and lead and inspire our athletes.”

Based on the success unified basketball has had in its first year and the interest he’s heard from his fellow athletic directors, Vachon believes the sport will explode in interest next year.

“I’m going to make a prediction: It will double next year. There isn’t any doubt in my mind,” he said.

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Like Vachon, Messalonskee athletic director Tommy Hill returned to the sidelines this winter to coach unified basketball.

“It has been great,” said Hill, who coached basketball at Messalonskee and Winthrop. “It’s been challenging at times, but it’s been fun to coach a little bit and interact with the kids. That’s the part I’ve missed the most about not coaching — interacting with kids on a daily basis.”

Messalonskee wrapped up the regular season at 1-4 and will host Waterville in an Eastern A prelim at 4 p.m. Monday. The Eagles have one of the largest rosters in the state with 12 athletes and six partners (teams are allowed to have up to 22 players total). Like many teams, the roster is comprised mostly of underclassmen (four seniors), so the sport has a strong foundation for next year and beyond.

“I think it’s something that will continue to grow, and not just here at Messalonskee,” he said.

One of the most rewarding parts of the experience is seeing students who don’t normally get a chance to feel like they are a part of a team embracing what it means to be a part of one now that they have the opportunity, Hill said.

“You come into school every day and the kids are asking ‘Do we have practice today?’ and “When’s our next game,” he said. “And kids are coming into the gym on their own and practicing. The athletes are understanding they’re part of a team and they’re looking for ways to improve.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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