Unified basketball is one of most joyful, heartwarming and tear-inducing high school sports, where points scored and which team wins is secondary to lessons learned, friendships forged, memories made and, above all, fun experienced.

And even in a pandemic, three Midcoast schools have found a way to continue to provide those things — namely, a special sport where thumbs-up, smiles (behind the face masks, of course) and laughter are in abundance, and unparalleled and unwavering sportsmanship is on display from the first second to the final buzzer.

And then, of course, there is the amazing life-altering role of the teenage student "partners" or "mentors," as well as the upbeat, infectious halftime music and dancing.

What is not to love about the unified basketball experience? Nothing, of course.

Watch video and see 125 photos below.

Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Mount View of Thorndike and Belfast will play a handful of court games with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, including wearing face coverings and social distancing when possible.

Unfortunately, Oceanside of Rockland, Lincoln Academy of Newcastle and Camden Hills of Rockport, who annually offer the sport, are sidelined this year.

The Maine Principals’ Association and Special Olympics Maine partner to develop and promote unified sports.

The 2019-20 unified hoop season was interrupted and this has been the first opportunity athletes and partners have had a chance to get on the court for competition.

The three area teams have a few games remaining in the pandemic-shortened campaign.

Medomak Valley will play at Morse of Bath on Tuesday, March 23, while Mount View will host Waldo County athletic rival Belfast on Thursday, March 25 at 4 p.m. at Mount View Junior High.

Few other high school sports see young partners on both teams do their best to make sure each athlete on the opposing squad gets into the action and has a chance to score.

The rules of basketball are loosely applied. There usually is no traveling with the ball as the players look to dribble. There is ball exchanges from one team to another to aid in athletes getting the most opportunities to score. There is cooperation as the goal is simply to help create memories for a group of athletes with challenges.

There essentially are no fouls or free throws. The games include two 20-minute halves.

The halftime music and group dances, which usually include any and all in the gym, when possible, are epic.

It is an activity where at least a few of a school's top student-athletes do their best to help students with developmental disabilities to have the most wonderful sports-related experience.

According to the MPA website, unified basketball partners students with developmental disabilities (unified student-athlete) with students without developmental disabilities (unified student partners) to train, compete, and represent their school. Unified sports impacts all types of students and helps promote physical activity, teamwork, sportsmanship, and social inclusion, the MPA states.

"The focus of MPA unified sports is competition (not simply participation)," the website message states. "The opportunity to compete in sports teaches many life lessons: to work as a team, to follow rules and to be committed. Through sports, we can find shared interests that allow friendships to form. Through MPA/Special Olympics unified sports program we have an opportunity to make real positive changes in the lives of students with and without disabilities."

The rosters of the three area teams in action this winter include:

Belfast — Summer Flewelling, Billy Bragdon, Brynne Sawyer, Audra Faulkingham, Toby Jones, Olivia Beverage, Izzy Degraff, Jordan Drinkwater, Logan Sheaffe, Jackie Batty, Iris Carpenter, Stellar Collins, Gabe Kelley, Rico Washington, Robert Hicock, Mykaila Willard and Maddie Stevens. The head coach is Sarah McIntire Bryant and assistant coaches Tina Young, Julie Morneault and Mike Savage.

Medomak Valley — Lizzi Swan, Grace White, Emma Kunesh, Baylee Stewart, Hailey Campbell, Landen Stewart, Isaac Richardson, Bella LaFrance, Zach Cheesman and Cullin Booker. The head coach is Tracie McLain and assistant coaches Jason Stewart and Paul Smeltzer. The Panthers have a partner, Baylee Stewart, and athlete, Landen Stewart, from the same family. Baylee has been involved since the program started. Landen is in his first year as a player. Jason Stewart is their dad.

Mount View — Brayden Bartlett, Donovan Queener, Emily Kendall, Jeremy Moulton, Jordan Van Oesen, Kairi Paul, Laurel Huntsburger, Madison Bisson, Nevaeh Parlin, Onna Queener, Samantha Cole, Starr Beaulieu, Shoshanna Dolai and Tamika Henry. The head coach is Vincent Vannah and assistant coaches Susan Beaulieu and Barb Dolloff.

Coach McLain said with Oceanside, Camden Hills and Lincoln Academy not part of this year's schedule, the Panthers were limited on who they could play. "With COVID restrictions, we can only play with teams from adjacent counties," she said. "So we have two games with Morse and the one game with Belfast."

She added in December when the decision was made to postpone the unified season due to the pandemic "we were hopeful that it would actually happen when February rolled around, but I was honestly afraid that they would end up cancelling the season altogether. It was so exciting when [athletic director] Mr. [Matt] Lash contacted us to make preparations for the season. We have a smaller team than usual, but it is working out just fine. It makes it easier to keep space and stay spread out. They have become accustomed to the mask wearing and frequent sanitizing. One of the biggest differences for us is the fact that there are no fans at the games."

She said the athletes miss the energy provided by spectators, who often are as involved in the fun as the players.

"For anyone who has watched a unified basketball game, you know what a huge part the fans play," she said. "The excitement that is shown for any athlete on either team is incredible and the famous halftime dances with anyone wanting to come onto the court to bust out some moves is always a highlight.

"When we were told of all the changes and given the seven-page 'Return To Winter Athletics Plan,' we knew we were willing to do whatever it took to play. The kids had the chance to play basketball and that is what mattered. It is all about them and having the chance to be out on the court having fun and doing what they love."

Bryant added: "Last year we were in the middle of our season when the pandemic hit. We had big plans on going to the Bangor Auditorium to play in a huge round-robin tourney. The team was so excited to play on the big court and due to COVID the rest of the season was cancelled.

"We were unsure what this season would be like. We heard a lot of schools were not playing, but Matt [Battani], our AD, did a great job of making sure we had a season. We practiced hard for two weeks and had two games at home. We have one more at Mount View on the 25th. The kids have been so eager for this season. Once they heard we were playing they were so excited. We just wished we had our fans in the stands cheering us on and participating in our halftime show."

Vannah said: "This has been my second year coaching, and the year has been quite different due to COVID rules and protocols. We definitely have a shortened year compared to last year. So far the players have done a great job being socially-distanced and wearing masks at practices and games all the time."

Vannah said Mount View athletic director Tom Lynch has scheduled a few games in May for a second half to the Mustang season. Those games most likely will be against Messalonskee of Oakland and Skowhegan, Vannah said.

"Even though this year has been so different, my players and mentors still have enjoyed our short season and have been super flexible and understanding with all the new changes that we have had so far this year," he said.

The reported results from games include:

Belfast 68, Medomak Valley 64

At Belfast March 18, the Lions and Panthers embroiled in a close, competitive game that was not decided until the final minute. The hosts led 33-32 at halftime.

For Belfast, Drinkwater tossed in 22 points, and also netted two three-pointers, while Jones added 10; Beverage, eight; Bragdon, Sheaffe and Willard, six; and Stevens four.

For the Panthers, Richardson scored 22 points; Landen Stewart, 18; Booker, 16; and Campbell, eight.

Drinkwater took aim at several three-point attempts. His early frustration on a few misses quickly turned to jubilation when he connected. Booker also made a bundle of cool spin moves in the lane, and even twirled the ball around his back, before putting up shots.

Father and son, Otis and Connor Kneeland, officiated. They were the perfect duo to watch over the game and only blew their whistles or injected when necessary. For the most part, they let the youngsters play and have plenty of unrestricted fun.

Morse 62, Medomak Valley 44

At Waldoboro March 16, the Panthers were paced by Richardson with 16 points; Booker and Landen Stewart, 12; and Campbell, four.

Belfast 50, Mount View 44

At Belfast March 11, the Lions outlasted the county-rival Mustangs.

For the Lions, Drinwater and Willard tallied 10 points; Jones and Sheaffe, eight; Beverage, six; and Bragdon and Stevens, four.

For the Mustangs, Parlin netted 12 points; Bartlett, eight; Huntsburger, Cole and Kendall, six; Beaulieu, four; and Moulton, two.