For the past two weeks, the Madison Area High unified basketball team has been treated like royalty, according to Coach Joshua Bishop.
Now they have a whole year to enjoy their reign and plenty of popular support.
A large Madison student section stormed the Edward Little court after Madison dethroned last year’s champion Westbrook 58-54 Tuesday night.
“This was a special game. It made me feel really confident and happy to know they were all here to support me,” said Madison sophomore Cameron Ellis, smiling so broadly his cheeks will probably be sore for a week.
Tuesday marked the fifth annual Unified Basketball championships, co-sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics of Maine, and the second year of using a neutral site. An estimated 450 fans filled Edward Little’s classic old gym, including Madison’s cheerleaders and the baseball and softball teams.
The fans were not disappointed.
The action was constant, and the score close throughout. Madison needed to rally from a seven-point deficit, led by sophomore Scott Sawtelle who scored 40 points and saved three of his best plays for the final critical minute.
What was the best part of the season for Sawtelle?
“Today. Winning that golden ball,” he said.
Unified Basketball has grown from 17 teams in 2015 to 53 this season. With co-operative teams, 59 schools participated and Heal points were kept in North (25 teams) and South (28 teams) divisions.
In Unified Basketball, high school students with developmental disabilities, referred to as athletes, and students without disabilities, called partners or mentors, play together. Three athletes and two partners are on the court at all times.
“It’s kind of one of the only things these kids get to have, athletics-wise,” said Jenny Dean, a three-year partner for Madison, which previously was in a co-operative with Carrabec. “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 up the kids when they score a basket or you give them a high five.”
Madison (10-0) had scored playoff wins against Bucksport and 2018 North champion Hampden/Bangor.
“The last two weeks, these kids have been able to be the kings of the school and the community,” said Bishop. “That’s the awesome thing about this. These kids got a chance to shine.”
Westbrook (8-2), which won its first unified title last season, had playoff wins against Oak Hill, Lewiston and Morse.
“This has been such a huge, huge thing for our school and community for these kids,” said Westbrook Coach Michael Russell. “They are part of our culture now and they walk the halls a little taller. Win or lose, that’s what it’s all about for us.”
By rule, the athletes must score at least 75 percent of the points, though that figure is typically much higher. Madison’s partners scored seven points. Ellis finished with nine points to provide Madison a secondary scorer and tough rebounder.
All of Westbrook’s points came from its athletes, led by Matt Ricks’ 31 points. He and Sabir Omar (18 points) were especially effective driving to the basket.
“It was a fun game. They played hard, we played hard,” Ricks said. “It was just a good game. Everyone was into it.”
Westbrook had its biggest lead of the game, 49-42, with about eight minutes to play. Sawtelle’s fourth 3-pointer started Madison’s comeback.
With the game tied at 54 and under a minute to play, Sawtelle hit a tough turn-around after getting accidentally hacked across the face, forced a turnover and scored in transition with 22 seconds to play, and stole the ball with eight seconds left.
About 10 minutes after both teams has posed for a group shot with the Gold Ball, Russell said his Westbrook players were “already talking about next year and I know they’re going to be bugging me about when we can go practice.”