While the high school varsity basketball season rounds the midpoint of its 2017-18 schedule, another division of the sport is set to kick off its fourth season next week.
Co-ed unified basketball, which matches students with developmental disabilities — unified student athletes — with non-varsity basketball players without developmental disabilities — unified student partners — to train, compete, and represent their school.
The sport has grown steadily in Maine since its inception in 2015, with 51 teams representing 59 schools beginning preseason practices on Jan. 2.
The roster of teams tentatively includes five new entries: Ellsworth, Old Town and Lawrence of Fairfield in the North and Gorham and Morse of Bath in the South.
All teams will play between six and eight regular-season games from Jan. 23 to March 2.
“On top of the growth we’re seeing with the number of teams, we’re also seeing more of the cooperative entries, schools opening up their teams for a neighbor to give them the opportunity to participate, too,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director for the Maine Principals’ Association,
The MPA welcomed its first three-school unified basketball cooperative entry this year with Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Schenck of East Millinocket and Penobscot Valley of Howland joining forces to field a team.
That’s one of seven cooperative teams around the state, along with Hampden Academy/Bangor, Madison/Carrabec, Hall-Dale/Richmond, Brunswick/Mount Ararat, Deering/Portland and Marshwood/Noble.
Teams then may choose to participate in traditional postseason tournaments beginning with preliminary-round contests based on Heal points on March 6, followed by regional quarterfinals (March 8), semifinals (March 13) and North and South championship games (March 15), all leading to the state final on March 20.
All regional tournament games will be played on the home court of the higher-seeded team, with the state final to be played at a yet-to-be-determined site.
Lisbon is the defending state champion. The Greyhounds edged Bucksport 40-37 in the 2017 title game.
Teams seeking a less competitive conclusion to their seasons will have the option of playing in a year-end festival on March 7 or 8 at sites yet to be determined.
Among the rules employed in unified basketball, unified student partners may score no more than 25 percent of a team’s points in a game, and a team must have at least three unified student-athletes on the court at all times.
Nine teams will get a head start on their seasons Saturday at the first Unified Basketball Winter Jamboree to be held at Thomas College in Waterville.
The event will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with teams from Winslow, Leavitt of Turner Center, Deering/Portland, Hampden/Bangor, Massabesic of Waterboro, Westbrook, Lewiston, Morse and Mount View of Thorndike scheduled to participate in a succession of mini-games.