STAUNTON – The goalball team from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind has been in big tournaments before.
However, the Chiefs knew they were in a different world after losing their first game at the U.S. National High School Goalball Championships in St. Augustine, Fla.
“That was an eye-opener,” senior Tyrone Brotherton said of VSDB’s 8-5 loss to Texas in the first round. “We hadn’t lost a game in two years, so we knew we were in for some tough competition.”
The Chiefs regrouped and won five straight games, including a 10-5 victory over Texas in the final, to capture the program’s first national championship and the first national title of any kind for VSDB’s visually impaired sports program.
“The players really came together and had a ‘never-give-up’ attitude,” said head coach Rory Swientek, whose team also won the tournament sportsmanship award. “Going into the nationals, we didn’t know what to expect, since it was our first tournament at that level. Winning the regionals in March gave us some great experience, and we won because of the hard work we’ve done since then.”
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.
What made this win more satisfying is that the team usually has its season in the winter months. The idea of going to nationals started with a visit to the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes’ website by Sean Walker, who was the Most Valuable Player at nationals.
Walker saw on the site that there was a national championship and wanted to see if he could go as an unattached player. But once he talked about i with his teammates and coaches at VSDB, the decision was made to get the entire team ready for the nationals.
“I was excited about that,” Walker said. “I was glad I was going to play with my teammates, instead of being a pool player.”
“All this preparation we did happened in five weeks,” said VSDB Athletic Director Jim Kiser, who also is an assistant coach for the team with Kristy McClain. “The other teams in the tournament have been playing since August and this is their final tournament. We practiced five weeks, two or three days a week, after cross country practice, so some of these kids were doubling up.”
After the loss to Texas, the Chiefs came back the next day and defeated South Carolina 10-6, shut out Georgia 10-0 and beat Lakeshore (Fla.) Foundation 6-4 to reach the semifinals. There, VSDB edged Florida 13-10 before the win over Texas in the final.
“There were some tough teams there,” said freshman Zion Walker, who was on the regional championship team in March. “Any team could play in the [regional], but these teams were good and it was a challenge.”
Junior Christian King was on the team as a freshman two years ago, but didn’t play with the team last season because his family had moved to Louisiana. He returned to the team this year, and was happy to see nothing had changed with the team.
“They all have the same attitude and the same goal in mind — to play their hardest, no matter what,” King said. “That hasn’t changed. Before a game, we’ll talk about anything, but when it’s time to play, we’re focused and ready.”
To watch video replays of VSDB’s games at the U.S. National High School Goalball Tournament, visit https://livestream.com/FSDB/goalball.