Carter Culleton backs into Westbrook’s Kevin Trynor during Monday afternoon’s Unified Basketball South Regional game in Auburn. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — A late-arriving bus delayed the start of the Unified South regional championship by a little more than 45 minutes at Edward Little on Monday. The Red Eddies passed the time doing a little light stretching, working through drills and shooting around.

As it turned out, the Eddies welcomed a little extra time together because their remarkable season ended abruptly thanks to unbeaten Westbrook, which handed EL its first loss of the season and clinched its first regional title with a 42-31 win.

The Blue Blazes (10-0) will face North champion Hampden Academy in the state final on Thursday at Thomas College. The Red Eddies, making their first appearance in a Unified regional championship, finished 10-1.

Westbrook never trailed, thanks in large part to senior big man Mark Preston, who scored the Blazes’ first nine points and their last six points en route to a game-high 30 points.

In the Special Olympics-sponsored Unified, athletes with developmental disabilities team up with athletes who do not have developmental disabilities, called partners, to help athletes have fun and develop athletic and life skills. The Maine Principals’ Association instituted the sport four years ago and it has expanded exponentially since, from 17 teams its first year to 50 this year.

Preston is one of nine seniors on the Westbrook roster, most of whom have been with the program throughout its three-year existence.

“These kids have been together for three years, and the second school starts back in September, they’re like, ‘Coach, when are we going to practice?'” Westbrook co-coach Mike Russell said. “This is a group of kids that has been psyched for three years to get to this moment. They’ve been talking about it and talking about it and they’ve worked really, really hard. Unified basketball has opened doors for kids that people can’t even imagine.”

“This was a great win. We came out here and played sloppy a little bit but then we picked it up and played like a team,” said senior athlete Kevin Trynor, who hit a 3-pointer that helped the Blazes build a 22-15 lead. “Teamwork makes dreamwork.”

Edward Little needed some teamwork to battle back from an early 7-0 hole. Ben Dumont came off the bench to give the Eddies a spark, scoring their first seven points. Carter Culleton later hit a jumper and Dumont hit a 3-pointer with one second left to pull them within 22-18 at halftime.

Dumont, a senior, finished with a team-high 20 points, including three 3-pointers. Senior Amsden Hayes had four points.

“It was fun. We played our hardest,” said Hayes, who played for EL from the team’s inception four years ago.

“This season has been awesome,” said Culleton, a senior in his third year with the team who finished with three points. “It’s been cool how the team has grown since the first time we practiced. We’ve been working together and getting stuff right.”

Preston was too much inside for the Eddies as he led an 11-3 Westbrook run to start the second half. Matt Fecteau added a hoop before Hayes’ layup got EL going again. A jumper by George Kampstra and Dumont’s last 3-pointer, a bank shot, helped EL close the gap to 34-29 with 8:30 left.

The Blazes held the Eddies to two points the rest of the way, though, and pulled away by going back to Preston in the paint.

“We focus on having fun,” EL junior partner Megan Steele said. “It would have been nice to win, but we had a really good season. We were undefeated and that just made it better.”

“The (regional runner-up) award itself is great,” EL co-coach Elaine Derosby said. “But what has occurred through the whole season and the last four years is more important. For us, it’s about the excitement on the bench, the excitement on the floor, and just their caring about each other.”

Westbrook’s bus picked the team up later than scheduled, causing the delay. For Edward Little, it was another teachable moment, helping the players learn to deal with unexpected disruptions. But the players, and coaches, also had to deal with the natural building anxiety for a championship game.

“I jumped into some passing drill trying to keep myself under control,” said EL co-coach Elaine Derosby, who is also the school’s varsity softball coach. “I’ve coached and I’ve played in situations like this, and (the athletes) are feeling the same things. Even though Unified is supposed to be fun, you know that there’s competition and they’re feeling that.”

Unified has given Westbrook’s athletes a sense of belonging, Russell said.

“In our school, we really haven’t been recognized before,” he said. “So now, they’re going down to lunch and sitting with other kids and sitting with the mentors. Forget about basketball, that’s what it’s doing for these kids. They walk the halls at our school a little bit taller and they like to be recognized.”

“I feel like we’ve grown a lot,” said Sopa Mongu, a junior who has been a partner since her freshman year. “For a lot of people on the team, this was their first time playing basketball. They had a fun, open space to come and play and they grew a lot. A lot of people were struggling with layups and now they’re perfecting it. It’s been really nice this year.”

Edward Little, which also had nine seniors on the roster, perfected teamwork this year to go deeper into the tournament than it ever has.

“I give credit to our partners, because they have evolved as well,” Derosby said. “They really understand what our philosophy is and stick with it. And they’re really good at communicating.”

“At the beginning of the season, we really didn’t work too much as a team,” Steele said. “The kids had good skills, but we weren’t skillful together. So in practice, we worked together on plays. We had actual plays this year, so that helped us work together a lot. I think that was what we got better on as the season went on.”

The bittersweet reality that hit the Eddies Monday is that they won’t be able to get better together for one more game, and the fact that players such as Hayes and Shaylea Latham, who have been playing for four years, are going to be missed.

“They were part of a group that started the program,” Derosby said. “They’re less basketball-minded than what the program has evolved into the last four years, but they were part of a group that started our tradition and we’ve slowly built from that. We’ve kept what our philosophy is, and we haven’t gone away from the fact that we have a Shaylea, an Amsden, a Caleb (Bisson) in our building that deserve to have people cheer from them and those moments.

“We’ve had those players that have been with us since we’ve started, and now they’re leaving,” co-coach Sandy Whiting said. “That’s kind of the hard part.” 

Edward Little’s Ben Dumont pushes past Westbrook’s Kevin Trynor during Monday afternoon’s Unified Basketball South Regional game in Auburn. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


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