HAMPDEN, Maine — A season-ending clash between two undefeated basketball teams battling for playoff position brought a good-sized crowd to Hampden Academy late Thursday afternoon.
And the game lived up to whatever hype was generated by a look at the Heal Point standings, with the two-time defending state champion Broncos edging Foxcroft Academy 53-52.
“Coming into the game we definitely knew that they were going to be tough competition,” said Hampden Academy senior Andrew Gendreau. “Both teams were very good but we came out on top.
“We obviously try to win, but that’s not the most important thing.”
Indeed, winning is only a small part of the lesson taught through unified basketball, a third-year activity sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association that matches student-athletes with developmental disabilities with nonvarsity partners in the spirit of teamwork, sportsmanship, promoting physical activity and social inclusion.
“I played basketball for two years and didn’t really like it, so I went back to just being me and doing work,” said Jared Atkinson, a sophomore unified student-athlete from Foxcroft Academy. “Then [FA associate head of school and unified basketball co-coach Tim] Smith came over to me and asked if I wanted to play.
“I didn’t really know if I wanted to because it had been a couple of years and I was kind of scared but I like it so far and I love the team. There’s a lot of teamwork and the other kids get to know us for who we are.”
There is a competitive element to the sport, as there was during this closely fought contest in which Jaron Baude scored 29 points and Isaiah Palmer added 20 to lead 8-0 Hampden to the come-from-behind victory and the No. 1 seed in the state’s 21-team North region.
Austin McKenna scored 16 points and Jordan Viles scored 14 for Foxcroft, which finished its regular season at 7-1 and ranked third in the North.
But as unified basketball — a collaboration between the MPA and Special Olympics Maine — continues to expand around the state from 17 schools in 2015 to 48 teams representing 52 schools this year, more and more programs are opting for a less-competitive conclusion to their seasons.
The top 67 percent of the teams in each region based on Heal Points are eligible for postseason play, but only eight of 21 teams in the North have chosen to move on to the playoffs. In the South, 12 of the 27 teams similarly will participate in tournament play beginning next Monday, according to MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham.
Twenty other teams instead will take part in one-day round-robin festivals at several locations around the state while eight teams largely from the Bangor area will cap off their winter by participating in the first Courageous Steps Unified Basketball Fun Day, scheduled for Saturday at Orono High School.
That event is organized by Connor Archer of Stillwater as part of his Courageous Steps Project, which seeks to give back to programs that helped the 2016 Old Town High School graduate get the start in life he needed as a youth living with autism. The organization strives to help children and young adults with developmental challenges by channeling resources and awareness to other organizations that assist these individuals.
Players like Gendreau and Atkinson, though both members of teams that will compete in the tournament that concludes with the state championship game on March 23, are among the vast majority of participants statewide who appreciate the longer-lasting rewards of unified basketball.
“Being here with these kids makes me feel good,” said Gendreau, who was spurred to become a unified partner at Hampden last year after watching a game from the stands as a sophomore. “I know we’re doing good things for them but, honestly, it comes back on me and makes me feel good. I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for them.
“It’s a great life experience that changes you. I wrote my college essay about unified basketball because it’s made a big impact on me in so many ways.”
As for Atkinson, the sport has enabled him to develop new friendships while renewing his love for basketball.
“I’m having a lot of fun doing it,” he said, “and I’m going to do it next year, too.”