Opinions and politics range wildly across the sports landscape, but there’s one thing on which Maine’s high school community has reached consensus.

Unified basketball is the best thing going.

“These kids have been the kings of the school,” said Madison head coach Josh Bishop, whose Bulldogs won the 2019 Unified basketball state championship. “That’s what’s the most important thing, that they’re getting the recognition they rightly deserve.”

Madison High’s Austin Mercier jumps in to the arms of his coach, Joshua Bishop, after the Bulldogs won the Unified basketball championship game in March. Michael G. Seamans photo/Morning Sentinel

Last winter marked the fifth season of Unified basketball at Maine high schools. The sport is catered to students with developmental disabilities, partnering them with students without disabilities called “partners.” Three athletes and two partners are on the court at the same time.

Unified teams play a schedule which begins in January and culminates – like virtually every other varsity sport – with regional tournaments and a state championship game.

Athletes, by rule, must score 75 percent of a team’s points in games. Typically, the percentage is much higher. In this year’s state championship game between Madison and Westbrook, athletes combined to score all but seven of the contest’s 112 total points.

School involvement in Unified basketball has grown 300 percent since it was introduced in 2015. What began with 18 teams and back-to-back championships for Hampden Academy ballooned to 54 teams and first-year standalone Madison team holding the Gold Ball.

Even with two 27-team regions in Maine, there’s room for growth.

“It’s more than we had envisioned,” Maine Principals’ Association assistant director Mike Bisson said of the sport’s popularity. “But now that you’ve seen it in action, there are still some large pockets in Maine, more rural areas, that have not had a chance to group up with other schools (to offer Unified basketball).

“That’s where we’d like to see some more growth happen.”

End-of-season options are being discussed, as more teams annually choose not to play in a tournament-style postseason. They’d rather see a festival setting to celebrate both individual and team accomplishments and keep the positive feelings from the regular season going, Bisson said.

Winning, though, does come with a wonderful feeling of accomplishment in a team – and school – setting.

Jennifer Dean, a Madison senior partner on the Bulldogs’ title-winning team, saw firsthand the benefit of a Unified team at her school — after two years of volunteering with the team at nearby Carrabec High School in North Anson.

“It’s kind of the only thing these kids get to have athletics-wise,” Dean said following Madison’s state championship. “They don’t really have a lot of opportunities to come to an event like this and have people cheer them on, and it just lights the kids up when they score a basket or you give them a high-five.”

And Unified basketball is just the beginning. The goal, Bisson said, is to offer a sport for special needs students in all three seasons.

Volleyball is already being lined up for a fall offering, and discussions toward spring season options are taking place.

“I think if you ask any school that’s offered (Unified), they’d tell you it improves their school’s climate,” Bisson said. “It not only effects athletes and partners, it effects the whole school environment. It teaches empathy, tolerance, patience. It leads to kids sitting and talking in a cafeteria who might never have interacted before.

“It makes for a more welcoming school environment.”