Hundreds of enraptured fans last week watched Scott Sawtelle score the game’s last 4 points to lift Madison Area Memorial High School to a 58-54 win over Westbrook and claim the Gold Ball at center court.

It was in many ways indistinguishable from the celebrations earlier in the month on courts in Augusta, Bangor and Portland. It was a great moment – and one five years in the making.

Madison’s win, behind 40 points from Sawtelle, gave them an undefeated season and their first Unified state basketball championship, something that didn’t even exist in Maine until 2015.

Unified basketball, a product of the Special Olympics, pairs students with developmental disabilities, referred to as “athletes,” and students without disabilities, known as “partners.”

The games are competitive – they serve as an athletic outlet for both athletes and partners, and they provide the benefits of teamwork and the lessons of winning and losing.

But that’s not the only goal of Unified sports. They also bring together students whose paths may not cross in the course of a regular schoolday, building relationships that last off the court.

Unified sports also give students who may not otherwise get the opportunity a chance to represent the school and be recognized by the community at large.

“They are part of our culture now and they walk the halls a little taller,” Westbrook coach Michael Russell said of his team. “Win or lose, that’s what it’s all about for us.”

In the time leading up to the big game – which drew a large contingent of Madison fans, including the school’s cheerleaders and members of the baseball and softball teams – the Unified players were the “kings of the school and the community,” said coach Josh Bishop.

Five years ago, 17 teams took part in the first season of Unified basketball in Maine. This year, there were 53 – enough for two divisions.

With that expansion, Maine is getting closer to fulfilling the promise of scholastic athletics, which says that sports have a lot to offer young men and women, and that there should be opportunities for students of all backgrounds and talent levels.

Done right, high school sports is about more than winning and losing – it’s about what you take away from the field once you are not on it any longer.

Looking at the team from Madison, it’s clear a lot will stay with these athletes once they hang up the high tops.

“It’s kind of one of the only things these kids get to have, athletics-wise,” Jenny Dean, a partner for Madison, and a member of the school’s state championship softball team, told Steve Craig of the Portland Press Herald.

“They don’t really have a lot of opportunities to come to an event like this and have people cheer them on, and it just lights up the kids when they score a basket or you give them a high five.”

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