Ryan Sinclair has always enjoyed playing sports and, in turn, understands what it feels like to have that ability competely stripped away.

In a baseball practice last May, Sinclair, now a senior at Hall-Dale High School, shattered his kneecap in a freak accident while fielding a ground ball. In the months that followed, he was confined to a wheelchair for about two months, underwent two surgeries and went to a physical therapist to rehabilitate the injury.

Sinclair still feels the effects of the injury in his knee, only now they may be to the benefit of his school and community.

This winter Hall-Dale will compete in unified basketball as a co-op with Richmond High School, which will make it one of 15 new teams to compete in the second year of the Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned sport. The season officially begins Friday, but the Bulldogs will not have their first game until Jan. 29 when they host Messalonskee at 3 p.m.

In the past Sinclair had competed as a member of the school’s boys basketball team in the winter, but elected to skip this season to rest his knee. Not wanting to feel left out, the 5-foot-11 senior said he elected to start the unified team at Hall-Dale for his capstone project.

“I wanted to give other people a chance to play basketball and it came to mind and we just put it in place,” Sinclair said Thursday. “I just enjoyed sports in my youth and it’s benefited me a lot. There are people who haven’t had a chance to play sports that can benefit from it too. I saw that and decided to do unified sports.”

Working with school officials and his mentor, Ian Frank, the Project UNIFY, Training and Camp Tall Pines Director with Special Olympics Maine, Sinclair secured a grant to cover the costs of transportation and officials. The team still needed a coach, though, and that is where his father, Bob, stepped in to help.

“I’ve got to give all the credit to my son,” said Bob Sinclair, who also coaches the baseball team and is a science teacher at Hall-Dale. “I was willing to step in and offer to be the coach for the season.”

Both Sinclairs noted how enjoyable the whole experience has been and how they hope the program will last well after Ryan’s graduation.

“As a coach it’s been really, really rewarding,” said Bob Sinclair, who is volunteering his time to coach the team along with Meagan Soule, a special education teacher at Richmond. “There’s so much interest in the program and the school community is catching on to what unified sports is. They’re all asking about our first game and how things are going.

“…I think it’s a win-win for everyone. Our first game is next Friday and already the excitement is building.”

That excitement is hardly exclusive to Hall-Dale and Richmond, though. Carrabec, Winslow and Nokomis have also added unified programs this winter and Cobras coach Mary Redmond-Luce shared many of the same sentiments as the Sinclairs.

“We’re pretty excited because a lot of our students have never been able to participate in a school sport, so just that process of taking the bus and going out to eat after the game and having their peers there,” Redmond-Luce, a special education teacher at Carrabec, said. “…What I’ve found just so far in practices are the kids are really starting to become friends where there was no connection before — through the hallway and at lunch, that type of thing.

“I’ve already seen this team come together and just embrace each other and really root for each other.”

Like what Ryan Sinclair is doing at Hall-Dale, it was Taylor Bartlett, a senior, who helped get the program going at Carrabec. According to Redmond-Luce, Bartlett brought up the idea after the two had attended a youth retreat with Special Olympics last year with another student. The two then worked together to write a draft and secure funding for the program from Special Olympics with the help of the school’s administration.

Another student, John Vartanian, a senior captain on the school’s boys varsity basketball team, has also been influential in the process, said Redmond-Luce. Vartanian is serving as a student assistant coach and works with the players on skill development.

“Both John and Taylor are very influential kids in our school,” Redmond-Luce said. “They’re just great kids so they bring other kids to accept this as something that’s really good.”

Redmond-Luce added that a lot of what she has seen on the court mirrors her ideologies as a special education teacher.

“What I really want is for every student to graduate saying, ‘you know what, everyone has a skill, everyone has a talent. When everyone has an opportunity, a team can be a really powerful thing,'” she said. “Hopefully they take that to the work site after they leave here in their community because kids with disabilities just really want a chance.”

Winthrop was one of the 17 schools that got a chance to participate last winter and coach Joan Thompson said via email that many of her players have been looking forward to this since the previous season ended. Thompson went on to write that she has been wowed by the growth of the sport since last winter.

“It is amazing to think that last year we completed our inaugural season with 17 participating schools in Maine. It was so successful that we now have 32 participating schools,” wrote Thompson, an ed tech/life skills teacher at Winthrop Middle School. “To me, that speaks volumes about Maine’s efforts and commitment in creating a unified environment in both its schools and communities.”

The Ramblers will open up their season Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Cony, who is one of five returning participants this season in the area along with Winthrop, Waterville, Messalonskee and Oak Hill. The Black Raiders host the Purple Panthers Friday at 3:30 p.m. in the first games of the year for each team.

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley


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