WATERVILLE — As Westbrook High and Hampden Academy traded baskets in the second half Thursday, the fans at Thomas College responded. Each basket, loose ball, tip or steal was greeted with a cheer or a groan.

Officially, it was the fourth annual Unified Basketball championships, co-sponsored by the Maine Principals Association and Special Olympics of Maine. But for those few minutes it was simply basketball with both teams trying their best to win.

Leading 38-36 with 8:15 to play, Westbrook pulled away down the stretch to capture its first Unified title, 54-42.

“We’ve all fought hard to get to this spot and we’ve dreamed of this since day one, to be state champions, and we’ve worked hard every single pratice,” said Westbrook senior center Mark Preston who led all scorers with 22 points.

“I’ve played other basketball before but this one was pretty tough,” said Hampden Academy freshman Trevor Reed, who scored nine points and had given Hampden its last lead, 29-28, with a driving layup.

Unified Basketball has grown from 17 teams in 2015 to 50 this season. With co-operative teams, 58 schools participated.

In Unified Basketball, high school students with developmental disabilities, referred to as athletes, and students without disabilities, called partners or mentors, play together. Three athletes and two partners are on the court at all times. The athletes must score at least 75 percent of the points.

“I get to play with my team and play with the best kids ever,” said Westbrook senior Kerrigan Baither, who had the honor of cutting down one of the nets.

Hampden Academy was making its third appearance in the state final. The Broncos beat Lisbon in the final the first two seasons. Lisbon beat Bucksport last season.

“Every single school in this state should have unified sports because all people can be a part of Special Olympics in some way, shape or form, whether you’re an athlete, a partner, a coach, a fan, a volunteer,” said Hampden Academy Coach Andrea Lee. “This is the one program that benefits every single person. My students have their heads held higher, walking through the hall (at school). They have a greater self-esteem. You’re school district has a greater sense of community.”

Unified basketball gave Westbrook senior Kevin Trynor a goal to work toward.

“Last summer, he knew this was his last shot to play and he told me, ‘Dad, all I want to do this summer is play basketball. I want to be good for next year. I want to go out as a winner,” said Trynor’s father Kevin Trynor.

Trynor scored Westbrook’s final two baskets and also added a nice fast-break assist to sophomore guard Matthew Ricks (10 points) down the stretch. When the final buzzer sounded, Trynor fist-pumped his way onto the court, let out a few primal screams and then hit the floor, overcome with emotion.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, we did it,’ and the tears just kind of came out. We made it my senior year and I told them from the start, I hope my senior year we win it all and we did. We played as a team,” Trynor said.

This was the first MPA Unified championship game played at a neutral site, with 600-seat Mahaney Gym about three-quarters filled. In January, Thomas College junior Cassie Contigiani of Belmont, New Hampshire, had organized a preseason Unified jamboree at Thomas. Contigiani started a Unified team at her high school to give her friend Laura Davies a competitive opportunity and has continued to fund-raise for Special Olympics in both states. At halftime, Contigiani presented $1,500 raised at the jamboree to Special Olympics of Maine.

As the game wound down, Contigiani stood said, “I just want No. 1 to score,” referring to Hampden’s Brianna Leneski. Moments later Leneski scored the game’s final basket.

“It’s all about who can have the biggest smile at the end,” Contigiani said.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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