Madison High players raise the Gold Ball after winning the 2019 Unified basketball tournament. The Maine Principals’ Association has decided to suspend the tournament for two years in favor of year-end festivals. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

High school coaches and athletic directors agree that the Maine Principals’ Association’s decision to suspend the Gold Ball tournament for Unified basketball for the next two years is the right move.

The MPA made the decision after receiving feedback that the tournament games were becoming much more competitive than the sport was designed to be played.

“The intent of Unified basketball, and the way it’s run here, I’m not sure there’s a need for a championship,” said Westbrook athletic director Blair Marelli, whose team has played for the state championship in each of the past two years, winning in 2018. “It’s a great experience for the Unified athletes, the partners and the people who are watching.”

Lewiston High School football player Noah Dixon listens to head coach Bruce Nicholas during the first day of practice in August 2017. Dixon, who graduated in 2018, also played Unified basketball. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Practices for the sixth season of Unified basketball began this week. Regular-season games are played from January to early March. Instead of a postseason tournament, the MPA has scheduled year-end festivals from March 13-21 at sites yet to be determined.

Noah Dixon, a 2018 Lewiston High School graduate who played Unified basketball, said the postseason format was fun and rewarding, but he also supports the MPA’s decision.

“It’s kind of 50-50 there. I did enjoy going into the playoffs and it feels really good to fight all season and make the playoffs,” Dixon said. “I think it’s a good idea for a festival because it gives teams a chance that they may not have in the playoffs in a festival kind of way.

“The real reason I play Unified or any other sport is because I like to play the sport because I love it, I don’t care about winning or losing too much.”

Unified basketball was established to provide athletic opportunities for students with development disabilities. They are partnered with students without disabilities called “partners.” There must be three athletes and two partners on the court at all times. By rule, athletes must score 75 percent of a team’s points during a game.

When teams met in the playoffs, several athletic directors said there was a change in the competitive nature of the games.

“During the regular season, even though scores were kept, the games were highly cooperative,” Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens said. “In our games, it was not uncommon to see a partner from our team grab a rebound and give it to an athlete on the other team to help him score.

“But, with a Gold Ball in sight, and the tournament format, that can change the nature of competition.”

Morse athletic director Nate Priest said Unified basketball was designed to provide an opportunity for the athletes “to experience sportsmanship, teamwork and dedication to a program.”

In the tournament, he said, “You see the kids become more competitive, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you seemed to lose something in terms of sportsmanship and teamwork. I think the MPA made a good decision.”

Michael Bisson, the MPA’s assistant executive director, said the association had been receiving concerns about the Unified basketball playoffs for the past two or three years. Finally, at last year’s postseason wrap-up, the MPA’s Unified Sports committee unanimously voted to suspend the tournament.

Bisson said that the MPA began using the tournament format from the start because “we wanted to make the experience just like it was for the varsity teams. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have started that way.”

Unified basketball has undergone tremendous growth at Maine high schools. It began with 16 teams in 2015 and now has 61, including eight new programs this year. Schools have always had the option to opt out of the tournament, and last year only 16 of the 53 teams played in the tournament.

Winslow has opted out of the MPA tournament the past few seasons. Instead, the Raiders have held a season-ending game featuring students versus staff, involving athletes and teachers from all the schools in the district.

“Everyone laughs, has a good time, and it’s a great way for us to end our season,” Winslow coach Lori Loftus. said “It ends on such a high note.”

Loftus said ending the tournament is “the best move (the MPA) has done.”

Bisson said suspending the tournament for two years will give the MPA the opportunity to reassess its goals. That could include going to two divisions, one for teams that want to play a more competitive style, the other for those who want to continue the developmental model.

“We needed to take a look at it,” he said.

Skowhegan coach Antoine Morin, who is a special education teacher at the school, said simply involving the athletes in the sport is more important than a championship.

“I’m for anything that keeps the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “This is one of the best things I’ve done in academics or athletics.”

Kristin Smythe, one of the two coaches of Thornton Academy’s Unified team, is also a special education teacher at the Saco school. She sees what the sport has done for her students.

“I’ve seen the changes in the school, its culture,” she said. “It is amazing. We have our partners and our athletes form strong friendships over the years. You see them talking in the halls. We even started a Unified club after the basketball season because the partners wanted to spend more time with the athletes.”

Sun Journal reporter Adam Robinson and Morning Sentinel reporter Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this story.

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