DEXTER, Maine — Kyle Merchant’s specialty on the basketball court is the 3-point shot.
They may not go through the net as often as he would like, but just the fact he was out there attempting to score from long range for the Dexter boys varsity basketball team this winter was a source of inspiration for his teammates — teammates who appreciate all the support he has given them over the years.
“The very last game of the season we were up and he got in the game,” said Dexter senior forward Matt Crane. “He likes to shoot threes everytime he touches it, and as soon as he puts one up everybody’s up hoping it’s going to go in and are just cheering for him and letting him know we’re there for him like he’s there for us.”
Merchant has overcome the challenges of autism to be a participating member of Dexter’s basketball, football and baseball teams throughout his high school career, and his contributions to the Tigers’ basketball program recently earned him recognition as the Eastern Maine recipient of the 2013 Maine McDonald’s Spirit of the Game Award.
Since 2009, that award — which includes a trophy and a $500 Spirit Scholarship to assist with higher education needs — annually has honored two high school seniors who embody the spirit of the sport of basketball, exemplify sportsmanship and inspire their teammates and coaching staff.
“I was really surprised,” said Merchant of his selection. “When I got to the banquet I was anxious for it but I was also sad because I’m going to miss my favorite team because I’m graduating this year. But this award has made me feel like I can push myself further and do even more with basketball.”
Merchant participated on Dexter’s junior varsity basketball teams each of his first three years in high school, then was selected to the varsity roster this winter.
“I was surprised when I got on varsity and when I got in a game for the first time at first I stood there and thought to myself, ‘this is amazing,’” Merchant said. “And when I started to play, I thought, ‘I’m with my teammates, playing with them in a game, and I won’t forget this moment.”
Merchant’s playing time during the season was limited, but sharing a camaraderie with his teammates was more important than individual success for the 5-foot-8-inch senior forward who wore uniform No. 54.
“Some kids struggle with that these days, if they’re not the center of the universe they think they don’t have any contribution to make,” Dexter coach Peter Murray. “But that’s never been him from day one. Everybody roots for him and hopes he does well, but he came into it with no expectations.”
Yet while his statistical contributions may have been modest, his more subtle contributions to a Dexter team that finished the regular season with an 11-7 record and reached the Eastern Maine Class C semifinals were significant.
“He’s a little bit of a throwback in the sense that we kind of a live in an age where people are consumed with playing time and there’s a sense of entitlement that a lot of kids carry around,” said Murray. “But he’s just happy and proud to have the uniform on. He sees the name on the front of the jersey and that’s what it’s all about for him. His first question is always what can I do to help this team and as small as that may seem, he’s willing to do anything.
“He comes to practice every day with a smile on his face and he’ll do what he’s told. He’s a player who really seems to get it and understand what it means to be part of a team.”
Often Merchant’s contribution is one of verbal support, words of encouragement after a tough sequence or sharing in the celebration after a big play.
“In baseball, when we score a run he’s the first one out of the dugout high-fiving us,” said Dexter senior guard Casey Jordan. “And when we go in at halftime of a basketball game he’s the same way, always high-fiving everybody even if we’re losing, trying to pick everybody up.”
At other times Merchant’s contribution is one of inspiration by example.
“He just makes you realize how hard you have to work individually through everything,” said Jordan. “We might be doing some running drills in practice and you want to dog it and not run that hard and then you look over at Kyle and you know he’s really not going to play in the next game unless we’re up by quite a bit but he’s right in the front going as hard as he can.
“He just makes us work harder as a team,” Jordan said.
And few things bring a bigger smile to Merchant’s face than knowing his efforts helped make his team better.
“I think I can count myself as a leader,” he said, “not a captain, but someone who can lead my team by cheering them on.”
Merchant and many of his athletic classmates still have one more baseball season to share before graduating from high school and moving on to the next stage of their lives — which for him includes plans to attend college.
Merchant will miss his teammates, and they will miss him.
“He works hard every time out and is full of spirit,” said Crane. “He loves to play and he loves to win, and he’s always there for us. It’s an awesome feeling to have him on the sideline with us.”
The Western Maine recipient of the Spirit of the Game Award, Jenn Smith of Dirigo High School in Dixfield, has served as team manager for the school’s boys varsity soccer and basketball teams for the past four years.
Smith played an integral role in the Cougars’ basketball success, in particular during the last two years, when the team went 41-3 and won the 2012 Class C state championship.
She was at every varsity and JV practice to set up chairs and run the clock or help with drills while ensuring that practices stayed on schedule, and she kept statistics during games.
Smith also spent the last two seasons training her replacement.
“Jenn has earned the respect of her team because she cares about our success as much as anyone,” said Dirigo boys basketball coach Travis Magnusson. “Jenn has inspired our team through her dedication and is the type of person that makes everyone better.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error in a photo caption. The photo of Kyle Merchant of Dexter said he was a team manager. He was not a basketball team manager, but a participating member of the team wearing No. 54.