BAR HARBOR — Clad in a gray T-shirt, blue shorts and with a whistle hanging backwards around his neck, Matthew Umphrey calls out for a water break several minutes into a team practice on a brisk afternoon in mid-January.
“Are you hydrated?” he asks one student before the squad huddles together inside the brightly lit Bernard Parady Gymnasium.
“I’m not seeing enough high-fiving,” he says, revealing his agenda for that practice of the co-ed unified basketball team of Mount Desert Island High School. “Let’s make sure we do more high-fives.”
Minutes later as one student runs coast to coast to sink a jump shot, the handful of spectators burst into applause, and the team members slap their open palms together in celebration. “That’s it!” cheers Umphrey, holding his hand up with a grin for a high-five.
“Seeing the students work together, celebrate together and smile is what sports is all about,” said Umphrey, head coach of the Trojan unified basketball team.
The unified sport – which was introduced at the high school this winter – partners special education students [athletes] with regular education students [partners] and uses rules slightly different than the traditional version of the sport. At least three athletes must be on the court at all times, and the partners may score no more than 25 percent of their team’s points.
The aim is to promote social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences.
The Maine Principals’ Association joined forces with Special Olympics Maine last winter to introduce unified basketball to high schools.
“It may be the single best activity that we started,” said Maine Principals’ Association Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham. “The impact that it has had not only on the unified athletes but also on the partners that help and unify basketball has been remarkable.”
MDI is one of the 32 teams representing 34 schools that are on board for the second season. That’s nearly double the 17 teams that participated last year.
“The feedback we received was very positive, and the expansion across the state was due to just the popularity that the first year had,” said Ian Frank, Project Unify director at Special Olympics Maine. “Athletic directors and school leadership were looking at this program as something they needed to get involved with and offer to their students.”
Umphrey, also the head coach of the boys’ junior varsity basketball team at MDI, learned about the sport last summer. The next day, he walked into the office of Athletic Director Bunky Dow and said “We need to do this.”
“It’s a great idea,” said Dow. “In practices, there are a lot of people just smiling and enjoying themselves. It’s what high school athletics should be all about.”
The partners, he has observed, take the athletes “under their wing and show them a lot about how to play and how to be a good teammate. There are lots of great things happening.”
Umphrey began training to become a coach in the fall and applied for a grant from Special Olympics that makes initial funding of up to $3,000 per school.
With the required paperwork and funds in hand, Umphrey put in place the selection of athletes. Until about a month ago, he really didn’t know if he would be successful.
“I was worried that not enough students would turn up.”
He received a plethora of responses. “It was tremendous. They set my mind at ease, I got commitments from everybody, and on that first practice, everybody showed up. That just blew me away. It all started making sense.”
The first day of practice on Jan. 5 “was wonderful.”
Being an adapted physical education teacher at the high school, Umphrey always has been on the lookout for opportunities to combine activities for regular and special education students.
“Getting them on the court together was just one way of them getting to know each other and developing new friendships,” he said. “It’s not about basketball, it’s about knowing that we’re all the same, we’re all people, and we can do things together. Its something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve always wanted to bring people into that feeling.”
Principal Matt Haney said that even though unification between students has been an agenda in academics and other extra curricular activities at the high school, the “inclusion in sports was a glaring missing piece.”
“I’m happy that Maine Principals’ Association started this project. I’ve watched the students work hard at practice, and I’m excited to see the games.”
Even though there is an element of competition to the sport, the long-term goal is to build a culture of unity in the school and to provide inclusive opportunity to all students. Umphrey said he already has begun to observe changes in culture.
Going into the regular season with a game against Hampden Academy on Jan. 28 and then against Orono on Feb. 5, he hopes “to be as competitive as we can to give it a good game.” But at the end of the day, he said, the numbers on the scoreboard are meaningless.
As far as Umphrey is concerned, “This has already been a success. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter where we fall, whether win or lose, I think we’re going to win either way. We have already won.”