WINSLOW — The bonding starts with a simple handshake.

“There’s different ways to do fist bumps,” Winslow High School senior Ashley Quirion explains patiently. “There’s the ‘turkey,’ and my favorite new one is the ‘snowman,’ where you stack your fists together.”

Quirion, a senior and standout soccer player during her four years with the Winslow High School girls varsity soccer team, is in her second year as a partner for the school’s Unified basketball program. Unified basketball teams are broken down into two groups of players — the athletes themselves and the “partners” who help offer guidance, support and encouragement to the athletes for whom the entire program is designed.

For Quirion, the fist bump was a simple — yet meaningful — way to connect.

“Once I did it to Ronnie (Mason), and I said ‘Check this out,’” she said. “Now every time I see him in the hall, he runs up to me and waits for me to hold my first out and say, ‘Snowman!’ He looks for me to just find me. It brightens my day so much. I don’t think (the athletes) realize how much joy they bring us, too.”

Partners like Quirion, Katie Doughty and countless other students spending their winter months on a Unified basketball team are an integral part of the process. These are not paid coaches or administrators. They are teenagers volunteering their hours to help make the experience at their own high school more inclusive.

Doughty serves as a student mentor in science classes within Winslow’s special education department. Adding Unified basketball to her slate seemed like an obvious — and important — choice for her.

Like administrators, coaches and other community members, partner athletes in Unified basketball share the same sentiments about the sport’s significance and the opportunity it affords a segment of Maine’s high school population who are otherwise secluded from athletics. With specialization across the sports landscape — from AAU basketball to premier soccer and travel hockey programs — even the most athletically inclined student-athletes find themselves pushed further and further to the perimeter of varsity athletics.

Words like “seclusion” and “periphery” are the equivalent of four-letter words in Unified basketball.

“It does remind me of when I was little and it was fun,” said Doughty, a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference soccer All-Star selection last fall, who plays soccer year-round. “You do get wrapped up in things in competitive sports — Heal points and checking standings and playoffs and things like that. No one cares about the score here. It’s just fun. It’s not about stats and stuff like that.

“When we were younger, you were shy around those kids. You didn’t know how they would react to you. Now, it’s not like it’s a group of kids you never see. They are easily the most popular group of kids in the school. They have the most friends, they have friends who want to hang out with them after school. It’s so huge for them, but it’s huge for us, too — to have someone who admires you, who wants to be around you, who wants to do fist bumps. It’s so cool.”

The partners have their favorites, that much is clear.

The Mason brothers — Ronnie and Jimmy — are practically cult heroes at Winslow. Ashton Erving is a “fireball.” Devin Bussiere switched teams for a day on Thursday to play for Lawrence, and he and his Black Raider teammates spent plenty of time trash talking one another.

More than the players, though, it’s the moments that make the Unified experience memorable.

“Every game is a joy in and of itself. There’s always something different,” Quirion said. “Someone makes a basket. Someone tries a spin move. Somebody does something they hadn’t tried before. That stuff always gets everybody excited.”

This is Doughty’s first winter as a partner. A hip injury derailed her indoor track career, and as a science mentor in Winslow’s special education department, Unified basketball is a natural extension of that.

Quirion is wrapping up her second season with the Black Raiders Unified team. When she was younger she couldn’t have imagined opening herself up to an experience like this one. Now, she can’t imagine not having done it.

“I used to do indoor track in the winter, but I didn’t find anything that was fulfilling me with that,” Quirion said. “When I’d watch the Unified games, it just brought me so much joy just watching. I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to make a change.’ It brings me so much happiness, and I’ve found something that fulfills me.

“Going in, I knew I would love it. The feeling is just … it’s indescribable.”

A fist bump describes it perfectly.


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