Lincoln Academy’s coed Unified basketball team hosted Medomak Valley for LA’s second home game of the season on Monday, Feb. 24. The atmosphere was light and the crowd enthusiastic to celebrate the Eagle athletes in their first season. Medomak Valley is in its second year with the Unified program and Maine in its sixth.
The spirit of Unified Sports was exemplified when sophomore Tally Bass scored her first basket. Bass clenched her little fist in the air and jumped with excitement. Teammates, competitors, and fans alike erupted in loud applause and cheering. It was Tally’s day to shine.
“My daughter joined the Unified club this year and little did she and I know what an impact this club would have on her and our LA community,” Alexa Abbott said. “I witnessed happiness, support of one another, pure joy, and sportsmanship at its finest!
“I couldn’t be more proud of our Unified coaches, our athletic department, our LA cheerleaders, all of our students who participated in the game, and the numerous students, faculty, and members of our community who came out to cheer for, make homemade signs of support for, and give standing ovations for these incredible kids,” Abbott said.
Unified sports are all about breaking down barriers. They are dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. The program joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding.
Athletes with disabilities are joined on the court by partners, who help organize the athletes and aid them on the court. The partners do not usually shoot, but pass to their teammates and give encouragement. By rule, 70% of baskets have to be scored by the athletes.
The partners are fellow students who do not play varsity basketball at their schools. Varsity athletes may get involved as coaches. There are three athletes and two partners on the court at a time.
“I think (Unified basketball) means allowing everybody to have the ability/opportunity to play, and helping others play, and getting people out there and active in the community,” LA partner Will Sherrill said.
“It’s fun! I’ve enjoyed being with my friends. And I love shooting baskets,” athlete Tianna Leeman said.
The Maine Principals’ Association follows the Unified Sports Player Development model, which allows for modification of rules to prevent higher-ability players from dominating the game. There is no traveling or double dribble or other restrictive rules.
Friendly play is encouraged and on many occasions in the LA vs. Medomak game, athletes would hand the ball back to their competitors for a second, third, or sometimes fourth shot – an act of unselfishness and sportsmanship.
At halftime, athletes, partners, and coaches mix it up on the court in a dance festival of sorts. They share smiles, laughter, and the joy of the moment in a beautiful display of what Unified Sports is all about.
“It’s about establishing relationships with players on the team that we might not get to know otherwise. These relationships transfer off the court, too, and it’s nice to be able to say hi to teammates in the halls and the dining commons,” LA student coach Olivia Stiles said.
“I really love seeing the sportsmanship on and off the court. Everyone (sometimes even the opposing team) is so supportive of one another,” LA educational technician Amy Winkler said.
“We have been very fortunate to receive tremendous amounts of support from our school administration and staff members. We only had two returning partners this season after graduating the rest,” Medomak coach Tracie McLain said. “Last year’s partners were amazing, and honestly, we were a little worried about replacing them this season, but we have truly lucked out. Our partners are caring, helpful, and enthusiastic.
“We have a great team that is really working well together. Partners and athletes are both extremely dedicated to the team and work hard at practices and in games. We have three student assistants that wanted to be involved, but could not be listed on our roster as partners because they play varsity basketball, so they assist with the team and participate in practices.
“Our athletes that returned from last year have shown tremendous amounts of growth and improvement. They are also so much more confident this year and often help our new athletes.
“Along with myself and Paul Smeltzer, we have Gordon Paul coaching with us. Gordon is a physical education teacher at Miller Grade School and is currently working on his (adaptive physical education) certification.
“It is exciting to see Unified basketball expanding to more schools every year. It is such a wonderful opportunity for all students to compete and to represent their schools. Each game contains lots of smiles, high-fives, and laughs, with cheering for every basket and good play on the court. We are thrilled to be a part of Unified Basketball.”
“Unified Sports promote sportsmanship, teamwork, understanding, social inclusion, and friendships,” LA Unified coach Morgan Brewer added.