BRUNSWICK

Many of us have seen the videos on the Internet of the manager of a high school basketball team who might otherwise be classified as a student with disabilities, getting the opportunity to get on the court, scoring a basket or two with the crowd roaring behind he or she.

Originally I wasn’t going to write this story as a column, but after much thought I realized the passion that I felt behind having a new program in the state of Maine under the Maine Principals Association called the “Unified Sports League,” my sheer excitement is going to show through anyway.

This new coed league, starting with the basketball season, brings together students that fall under the realm of the Special Olympics and students that may not be able to make a junior varsity or varsity program in high school.

 

 

With Brunswick and Lisbon High Schools each having a team, the two will face off in its first contest of the season in Lisbon Falls on Wednesday.

“Many of these students are involved with Special Olympics, but now we’re taking it a notch up,” said Jodie Benson, a special education teacher at Lisbon High School as well as a member of the MPA’s Unified Sports committee. “We’ve wanted more for our athletes. These are students who may never be able to make a jayvee or varsity team.”

Much like a varsity program, each team will have five players on the court at all times.

The specifics include that three players must be classified as students with disabilities, while the other two are considered “partners.”

“Right now we’re considered an instructional league,” Benson said. “This is where students with disabilities control 75 percent of the scoring, while students without disabilities are limited to 25 percent.”

The MPA has split the league into two divisions of East and West, with scheduling handled in an East, West and Central format, giving teams less travel time.

This year includes 18 teams from throughout the state, and after the eight-game inaugural season, playoffs will be executed the same way as the standard varsity programs. Seeds eight and nine will play a preliminary game, followed by a normal bracketed style tournament, with the state championship to be held at Lewiston High School at the conclusion.

“This is just another wonderful opportunity that we can provide for these kids,” Brunswick High School Athletic Director Jeff Ramich said. “I’ve been involved in Special Olympics, actually with Jodie over at Lisbon, but I haven’t been a part of it since I left there, so I am really excited to be a part of this Unified Sports League committee.”

When I first heard about this league I figured it consisted of just students with disabilities, but I soon learned that it involves even more than that.

As mentioned before, students who are considered “partners” will also be part of the team. This finally opens up a chance to break down the social barriers within high schools, creating a positive and equal environment.

“It’s an opportunity to create an inclusive program to combine students with and without disabilities that enjoy the game of basketball,” Benson said.

“That is one of the biggest aspects of doing this,” Ramich said. “The kids that are playing basketball, baseball or soccer, they may not come in contact with the Unified Sports programs, but what you’re doing is not just making them into partners, but into friends.”

The term “friendly competition” has been around for decades, but at long last we have a league that exemplifies just that — a competition that creates inclusion amongst students that just want to be treated the same way as everyone else.

Both Benson and Ramich hope after the initial season is complete that the Unified Sports committee can look at what worked and what improvements are needed, paving the way to a season that consists of many of the details of what a standard varsity sport holds — a full season with a recognized tournament at the conclusion.

“I would love to get a great following and get a tournament up in Augusta.” Ramich said. “We want these Unified Sports kids to have experiences just like the others.”

“We hope that some time down the road that more teams will join from up north and follow the same format as the varsity basketball programs we have now,” Benson stated.

The Unified Sports League is a large step in a direction of the inclusion that not only the educational system has been looking for, but for society in general.

This program joins the models of Rhode Island and New Hampshire as well as southern states that already have developed leagues such as this.

Both teams at Brunswick and Lisbon

High School have already started practicing, with games beginning this week, and it’s going exactly how Ramich hoped for.

“Every kid is smiling and every kid is working hard,” he said. “You may not see relationships build like that (in the halls), but now you’re putting these kids together and it’s been nothing but awesome.”

When the athletes step on the court to face each other on Wednesday afternoon at Lisbon Falls, it can only be assumed that dreams will come true and the overwhelming issue of equality will be further diminished.

Unified League

East West
Cony Bonny Eagle
Edward Little Brunswick
Hampden Academy Gorham
Lewiston Greely
Messalonskee Leavitt
Oak Hill Lisbon
Oceanside Oxford Hills
Waterville Poland
Winthrop Yarmouth

JACOB OUELLETTE is a sports writer for the Times Record. He can be reached at [email protected]timesrecord.com


Comments are not available on this story.