STAUNTON – Championship years don’t always start with the first game of the season.
They often start after the final game of the previous season, especially if the result of that game was a loss, and that was the case with the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind’s goalball team this season.
The Chiefs got to the championship game of the Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind Tournament in 2015, where they lost to perennial power Florida School for the Blind. It was the best finish in the boys program’s history, but it was a result the team didn’t want to repeat.
“They were leading Florida in the game, but they lost,” said VSDB Athletic Director Jim Kiser, who also is the team’s assistant coach. “After the game, the players put their heads together and decided that they were going to win that championship.”
The Chiefs accomplished that task this year, winning all five of their games at the EAAB tournament in Romney, W.Va., on March 18 and 19. It was the school’s first championship in the sport since the program started in 2002.
“It really was a relief,” said Tyrone Brotherton, a 12th-grader from Portsmouth, who, along with 11th-grader Sean Walker of Winchester, was named to the all-tournament team. “It was a good feeling because we accomplished our goal for the past two years.”
Goalball, a sport developed in 1946 by an Austrian doctor and a German doctor to help rehabilitate visually impaired World War II soldiers, consists of two teams with three players each on a floor about the size of a basketball court.
The players, who are all wearing blacked-out goggles and staying in a specified area on their side, try to get a 3-pound, hard rubber ball about the size of a basketball into a goal defended by the other team. There are small bells inside the ball to help the players located it when it is thrown.
Under head coach Rory Swientek, the six-player VSDB team, which includes Brotherton, Walker and his brother Zion, Hunter Johnson, Malik Sims and Daniyal Salman, finished the season 10-0, including its five wins in the seven-team tourney.
On Friday, the Chiefs won their games against Governor Morehead of Raleigh, N.C., and Perkins School of Watertown, Mass., by scores of 12-0 and 11-2, respectively. They defeated Overbrook School of Philadelphia, Pa., 14-4 on Saturday to advance to the medal round.
In the semifinal, the Chiefs earned a thrilling, 11-10 sudden-death victory over New York Institute for the Blind — a game that produced several heroes.
The Chiefs were trailing by three goals in the first half when Brotherton, who averaged just under five goals a game in the tournament, was taken out of the game after a couple of penalties. That’s when Zion Walker, and eighth-grader, came in and helped keep VSDB from falling further behind.
“I was ready for it,” said Zion. “This is what I practiced for and it’s what I was supposed to do. I had to back up my friend.”
Brotherton, who is a starter along with Sean Walker and Johnson, returned to the game in the second half and rallied the Chiefs to tie the game 10-10 to force sudden death.
“I was mad that I got taken out, but it was the right thing to do,” Brotherton said. “It helped me get focused and play better.”
In the three-minute overtime, Sean Walker, who averaged 20 blocks a game in the tourney, blocked a New York throw, then sent his throw past the defense for what seemed to be a game-winning goal. However, an official penalized Johnson for taking his goggles off too soon, setting up a penalty shot in which he alone had to defend the goal against New York’s best player.
But Johnson was up to the task, stopping the shot to end the game and send the Chiefs to the championship game against Florida School for the Blind.
“I went in there with the mentality that I was going to block that shot,” said Johnson, a Henrico native. “I didn’t want to let my team down.”
There was less drama in the final, but plenty of elation as VSDB gained a measure of revenge with a 7-3 win over Florida.
It was a long climb for Sean Walker, who has been with the program since he was a ninth-grader, according to Kiser.
“When I got here four years ago, Sean was with the program and it didn’t win a single game that season,” Kiser said. “From there, it’s been a long, slow process and when Tyrone and Hunter transferred in, it gave Sean the players he needed around him for him and the team to succeed.”
Or, as Zion Walker succinctly put it.