The main goal Edward Little co-coaches Elaine Derosby and Sandy Whiting have for the start of the Unified basketball tournament in the South quarterfinals is the same as it’s been throughout their undefeated regular season — creating an environment where everyone is having fun, developing skills and learning life lessons.
But like everyone else in the Maine’s self-proclaimed city of basketball champions, the coaches and their 18 players/partners can’t help but get caught up in the thrill of winning a state championship.
“Our kids know. It’s in the atmosphere around school,” Derosby said, referring to the excitement of the girls’ and boys’ teams winning a state title last Friday. “They’re excited and ready to play.”
The Red Eddies (8-0) are the top seed in the South and host ninth-seeded Gray-New Gloucester (5-3) at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. The Patriots won the first tournament game in their program’s history, beating Greely in the preliminary round to take on EL for the first time this season.
Another prelim winner, sixth-seeded Lisbon (5-3), will take the short trip to Lewiston to face the third-seeded Blue Devils (6-2) at 3:30 p.m.on Friday. The Greyhounds are the defending state champions.
No. 12 Poland, which edged No. 5 Marshwood/Noble by a point in the prelims, will take on Bonny Eagle in another South quarterfinal.
Now in its fourth season, Unified is a co-ed sport that combines students with developmental disabilities with playing partners, often athletes in other sports, for a season designed to promote partnerships and friendships, help all of the participants build life skills and have fun.
The sport has grown quickly to include 60 teams around the state this year. Starting last year, the Maine Principals’ Association gave teams the option, after their short regular season (around eight games), of playing in the tournament or at less competition-based end-of-season festivals around the state. Eighteen teams opted into the tournament this season, six in the North and 12 in the South.
Derosby and Whiting have asked their players and partners what they want to do, and the Red Eddies have opted into the tournament each year.
Players and coaches are excited to have another week of practices and games, and hope to win to keep the experience going. And they do want to be the team raising the gold ball at the end.
But Derosby noted a number of Edward Little seniors who have participated in Unified for three or four years have come so far in their development since starting in Unified that it’s clear their biggest victories have already happened.
“As competitive as I am, I remind everyone that the improvement we have seen from some of our kids has been amazing, and why we play,” she said.
One of the things Derosby and Whiting, who are both special education teachers at EL, stress is defense, because it enhances players’ ability to react to what is happening and remember what their responsibilities are better than playing offense.
“That’s what we focus on in practice is defense because it kind of puts them in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to process things at a faster speed,” Derosby said. “That’s helping them to get through what can happen in life, like trying to get a job.”
The focus on defense has obviously translated to success on the scoreboard. The Red Eddies have held every team they’ve played under 30 points this season.
Regardless of the score, regardless of the gym, players and partners will walk off the court with a smile because of the bonds they’ve formed during the season and the fun they’ve had making themselves and each other better.
Lisbon’s Michael Farrington, left, takes a shot during the first half of Tuesday afternoon’s Unified basketball game against Oak Hill. Lisbon is among eight teams remaining in the South bracket of the MPA’s Unified basketball tourney. Edward Little of Auburn is the top seed.