Anthony Pelletier of Morse, left, goes to shoot while Cody Huff of Freeport defends during a unified basketball game on Wednesday at Freeport High School. Eli Canfield/The Times Record

AUGUSTA — Cony unified basketball coach Renee Madore wasn’t sure if there was going to be a season for her players. The coronavirus had been casting a cloud of doubt over each sport since its arrival last March, and unified was no exception.

“We didn’t know for a while if that was even going to be a go for them,” she said.

A unified season did come to fruition, however, giving athletes the same good news that boys and girls varsity and JV players received earlier in the year. There are some big differences, of course. The players wear masks. The stands, normally full of supportive classmates and family members, are empty. The seasons are shorter, and at different times; several teams began playing six-game schedules in March, while others are hoping to play their games in April or even May.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the lift the sport gives its players — a lift that may be felt more this season in particular.

“It just gives them that sense of normalcy at a time when everything in life has been so unpredictable,” said Madore, whose team played its fourth game Thursday. “It gives them that sense of ‘This is what we’re used to doing, we’re used to playing.’ … We all know that sports and mental health go hand-in-hand.”

Skowhegan’s Cooper Jarvais (20) left, and Nikita Benacquisto (4) dance in between quarters during a unified basketball game last season against Winslow in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

While some aspects of the sport have changed, the enthusiasm for it hasn’t.

“We were a little unsure on how many athletes we’d have participating specifically from our school, but we had a great turnout and were actually overwhelmed by the numbers we had,” said Morse co-head coach Becky Roak. “We thought we’d be piecing together a team but now we almost have enough for two rosters.”

Joe Burnham, in his first season coaching Winthrop, said the season has been important for his players. Winthrop played its fifth of six games Thursday.

“The athletes that it services have the same restrictions everyone else has,” he said. “They needed an outlet, and we’re just glad that unified happened. … They got started after basketball season, but better late than never.”

For some schools, much later. Normally timed to run from the end of January to the end of March, unified this season is run more when the schools can make it work. While teams like Cony, Winthrop, Maranacook and Hall-Dale are playing now, some teams like Skowhegan are looking to play in April or May. Lawrence too might try to add some games later in the year.

“I never expected to go during the traditional winter season,” said Skowhegan coach Antoine Morin, whose team hasn’t held a practice yet. “We just want to get a couple of home games, a couple of away games. … I have some seniors that are raring to go.”

Athletes who are in action have to play in front of vacant bleachers — a considerable change from the normal game environment.

“A big part of unified basketball games is the crowd,” said Waterville coach Sarah St. Pierre, whose team isn’t playing this season but plans to be back next year. “Those kids playing in front of a crowd is what makes their game.”

“The sad part about is that they can’t have fans,” Maranacook coach Jill Watson added. “They can sit there and cheer on the kids when they do a 3-pointer, cheer on any baskets. That’s what’s missing.”

Morin said his team will notice what’s missing when it does get on the court.

“The emotional piece of having 200, 300 of your peers cheering you on and supporting you, it’s just irreplaceable,” he said.

Still, athletes, helpers and coaches know the positive far outweighs the negative. Winthrop helper Madison Forgue, for instance, is a player on the varsity girls basketball team, and during a normal season she wouldn’t have the time to participate on the unified team as well.

“I’m so happy I’m able to do it,” she said. “Normally our seasons overlap, and since they started a little bit later, I got to participate this year. I’m so glad I did. Even without masks, we’re still at halftime having dance parties. It’s really great, the environment’s awesome.”

Even the lack of fans isn’t as big an issue as it could be. The games are streamed, allowing the players to perform in front of an audience, even if it’s not one in the building.

Winslow brothers James Mason (00) left center, and Ronnie Mason (23) right center, share a moment on the bench during unified basketball last year in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Watson said 70 people tuned in to watch one of Maranacook’s games online.

“We send the link out to the parents so they can give it to the grandparents and everyone else, and I’ve got the kids giving it to their older brothers and sisters,” she said. “That’s a positive, and I’m hoping even when we’re through the pandemic, that’s something that stays.”

Burnham said streaming has given his team a boost.

“I think that they’re more excited,” he said. “There’s record of their game now. They get to go back and they get to watch it. That’s not something that they had in the past.”

The differences aside, nothing beats being able to be on the court.

“It’s just so heartwarming to watch these athletes compete and for them to have a way to get out and have a way to exercise during a time like this,” Freeport co-head coach Nancy Drolet said before the Falcons took the floor on Wednesday to face Morse. “When they start scoring and you can see the joy it brings to them, I find myself shedding a tear at times.”

 

The Times Record staff writer Eli Canfield contributed to this report.

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