BERLIN — The Exeter Blue Hawks snuck by the Berlin Mountaineers, 35-30 to win the 2021 NHIAA Division I Unified Basketball Championship at Bow High School, under the athletic direction of former Berlin High student/athlete Mike Desilets last Friday afternoon.

The Blue Hawks utilized some long-range shooting success, as well as a very solid "partner" performance by Spencer Clark, and some missed shots on the floor and from the foul line by Berlin to secure the victory. Both teams traded baskets back and forth in the first period with the Hawks up 12-10 going into the second quarter.

Exeter doubled up the locals 8-4 in the second frame, to lead by a 20-14 margin at halftime.

Second-half action saw Berlin outscore Exeter 16-15 but it wasn't enough to overcome that halftime six-point deficit.

The White Mountain Community College player of the game was freshman, Kenny Verhalle, who had 16 points, including three from outside the arch.

The Blue Hawks ended two of the four periods with three-point buzzer-beaters and scored a total of 18 points on three-pointers that might have deflated the Mountaineers in a subconscious way, especially since they were in the game throughout. But Berlin never did quit.

Exeter's Devin Stone scored six points, Aiden Alimon, five; Ethan Lindsey, four; and Gavin Berube, three for Exeter. The star of the game was Clark, who controlled the offense, defense and rebounding aspects of the game and played pretty much the entire 32-minute game.

Berlin was led in scoring by Roger Belanger with 13 points, Randy Belanger with 11, who also was fouled several times especially in the second half, mostly non-shooting, and who hit a long three-pointer at the buzzer. Ross Belanger, who did a masterful job of running the offense for the Mountaineers and playing solid defense, Felix Frechette and Kolbe Delafontaine scored two points apiece. Berlin was 3 for 11 from the foul line, which certainly did not help the cause.

Longtime coach and strong advocate for unified sports and kids in general, Karen Turgeon, was a little disappointed for the kids and the program. As usual, though, she was totally positive in her assessment of the game. As she said, "We played a very talented group of athletes and partners and the last four times we played Exeter they beat us each time by double figures, but not this time. We were in the game throughout and even though those three-pointers hurt us the kids bounced back each time and they played their hearts out, left it all out on the court."

Coach went on to say, "The program and I will miss Emilie Morris, Alyssa and Kolbe Delafontaine, Roger Belanger and Felix Frechette as their careers are over but the returnees of Randy and Ross Belanger, Chris Trask, Jeremy and Candice Howry and Eleanne Morris, who is the only partner left, give us a good foundation to build on. We will need to get some kids from the high school to step up and play unified. And remember unified is much more than just basketball."

My personal and professional opinion is that the Berlin Unified basketball team has nothing to be ashamed of and they were never really out of this game and never gave up. Of special note, and certainly no excuse, but a factor for sure, is that Exeter is a true Division I team, as the high school is comprised of 1,658 students, while Berlin is on the edge of being a Division IV school, with 391 students.

For the Mountaineers to be that close to winning the championship against a much larger school, says something about Coach Turgeon, Assistant Coach Jerry Healey and the entire team. The Unified and Special Olympic motto is, "Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

As disappointed as we all were with the outcome, it really is not just about this moto but life's moto, about success not being measured just in wins and losses but in the effort. BHS put in the effort for sure.

The unified program set up by the NHIAA is a special program where "young people can become agents of change in their schools and their communities." That is so true in Berlin. I have had the privilege to broadcast three BHS unified games this season and followed this team since its inception and had been involved in Special Olympic adult basketball for a number of years.

This BHS unified team is a very exceptional and extraordinary group of people, who truly have and did bring the community together. Remember those days when they played in the semi-finals and finals with pretty much the entire local population from the north country making the trek to UNH to support the kids and the program? It was special. I also remember their first game played at the BHS gym with the entire student body and so many others in attendance. It was a wild, crazy and very emotional time for most present.

My hat goes off to Karen Turgeon for the performance while being the runners up in Division I Unified basketball and to Mike Poulin and his staff and team for winning the 2021 Division 3 Boy's Hockey Championship!

Both fitting conclusions to a great winter sports season at BHS!

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