WATERVILLE — On Saturday morning, Grace and Gerry Longley got a spirited wakeup call from their son.

A senior at Leavitt High in Turner, Nathan Longley walked into their bedroom — dressed in his basketball uniform — and cheered, “Gooo Leaviiitttttt!”

It was 4 a.m.

“He was all suited up and ready to go,” Gerry Longley said. “It’s really made his high school (experience) complete.”

What Gerry Longley is talking about is Unified basketball — a co-ed sport that combines athletes (high school students with developmental disabilities) and partners (students without disabilities who help sustain the flow of games). The league in Maine has more than tripled in size since its inception four years ago — from 17 teams in 2015 to 53 this season, with seven new programs joining the ranks for 2018.

For nine of those squads, the season kicked off at 9 a.m. Saturday in a jamboree at Thomas College. Official games begin Tuesday and will run until the state championship on March 20.

“When no one else gets a basket, there’s only one person to call and that’s me,” said Leavitt’s Alex Morris, who his teammates call “the human GPS” for his ability to navigate their bus to games. “It’s an honor to be on the team.”

It’s that kind of confidence that has more and more schools adding Unified basketball programs. New teams include Biddeford, Gorham, Morse of Bath, South Portland, Ellsworth and Old Town. With seven co-ops, 61 schools are represented.

“We actually have to turn kids away for partners because we have so many who want to be involved,” said Winslow coach Kit Potelle. “There are some schools that say they don’t have enough kids. They aren’t looking hard enough because they’re there and they deserve this chance to play.”

Teams will play between six and eight regular-season games. Three athletes and two partners play at a time, and partners are limited to scoring no more than 25 percent of a team’s points.

“They were so excited all week to come here — they’re all just so grateful for the experience,” said Leavitt senior Hailey DeMascio, who has been a partner on the squad for four years. “All the kids who play this are great, thankful kids who accept anyone.”

But the league is also competitive, as was apparent in Saturday’s game featuring Deering/Portland and Winslow. For Deering/Portland, Armondo Davala forced turnovers and took the ball down the court for uncontested layups. On his mind remains last year’s 43-42 playoff loss to Bonny Eagle, which Deering/Portland suffered after achieving an undefeated regular season.

“We’re going to get our payback soon,” Davala said, repeating with emphasis: “SOON.”

That hunger for victory didn’t override his capacity for compassion when Winslow’s Ronnie Mason got the ball on Deering/Portland’s side of the court with less than a minute left and the score tied 18-18. No one tried to swat it out of Mason’s hands or block his shot. They instead turned to the basket and waited for the potential rebound.

There wasn’t one. Mason gave Winslow the lead before Davala answered back seconds before time expired to tie the score at 20 — the final score.

“We try to teach everyone on our team to read the situation and see what they should do,” said Deering/Portland Coach Chris Hazelton. “We play every game to win, but we just want to make it competitive and fun for everyone.”

Lisbon is the defending state champion, edging Bucksport, 40-37, in the 2017 final. Less competitive programs can choose to opt out of the playoffs and instead participate in an end-of-year festival.

“Everyone seems to get what they want out of it,” Hazelton said, “whether it’s just being part of a team or getting better at basketball.”

For Leavitt’s Crystal Beaucage, unified basketball has offered her the chance to socialize. “I like it because we can make friends,” she said.

For Winslow’s Joey Kingsbury, it’s taught him discipline. “My grades have gone up, and my temper has gone down.”

For Leavitt’s Shyan Collins, it’s helped her conquer fears.

“The buzzer was really loud and the dog scared me,” said Collins, who squeezed her ears at the sound of every buzzer and kept a wide berth from Thomas College’s terrier mascot. “But I like dribbling the ball and passing it.”

“Shyan has really never liked to play unified sports, so this is the first thing she has really gotten excited about,” said Leavitt Coach Jenn Sumner. “She has really overcome some things to be here, and she’s doing amazing. I’m very proud of her.”

Unified basketball’s impact doesn’t end with the individual athletes. Since Winslow added its program three years ago, Potelle said the atmosphere at the high school “has changed 100 percent.”

“Our athletes that play on the team are well known by everybody at school,” Potelle said. “They get high fives in the hallway. People ask them to sit with them at lunch. They are treated like they should be – they’re treated like heroes.”

Taylor Vortherms can be contacted at 791-6417 or

[email protected]

Twitter: TaylorVortherms

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