Goalball is a quiet sport. The need for the blindfolded players to hear the ball necessitates that the crowd and benches be silent while the ball is in play, as in golf or tennis.
The time to cheer is between throws, when the ball is out of play. In the U.S. men's matchup against Ukraine at the IBSA Goalball International Qualifier on Tuesday, one chant rang out repeatedly during those few down moments.
“USA! USA! USA!”
Josh Welborn, a member of Team USA, said his team is not accustomed to having such large crowds behind it. There were close to 200 people in the stands at Turnstone.
“It's kind of surreal, honestly,” said Welborn, who also played at Turnstone in the summer of 2018 for the National Goalball Championships. “It's an unfamiliar feeling (with the cheers) not coming merely from the women's (national) team.
“We certainly do appreciate (the women's team cheering for us), but it's really an awesome experience to be out on home soil and have a hometown crowd supporting us.”
Team USA fell to Ukraine 7-4 in the first of six games in pool play at this qualifier, which helps determine spots in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. The top two teams from the qualifier will earn places in Tokyo.
The U.S. won a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and four of the six players on its current roster were members of that runner-up unit. Despite that experience, the Americans are still trying to find a formula and substitution pattern that works with the current group, coach Matt Boyle admitted.
“Honestly I think this team is better than the team that we had in Rio,” Boyle said. “It's just a very newly formed team. ... My assistant coach and I were talking about this (Monday) at dinner, about, 'Oh man, be sure we don't make the wrong decisions picking the wrong guys to play.'
“But in reality we could make the wrong decisions and pick the wrong guys to play and still win, that's how good this group of guys is.”
Although the coaches are still working on putting each player in the situation in which he is most effective, the team's chemistry has benefited significantly from the return of so many Paralympians. The two players who were not with the national team in Rio in 2016 – Welborn and Calahan Young – have fit in well with the group.
“The team chemistry is beautiful,” said Welborn, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. “I've been on a couple international teams and so far this is definitely my favorite one. I love all these guys and I know all these guys love me, so it's really an awesome thing to be a part of this team with them.”
The U.S. men's team will play today against Finland at Indiana Tech, while the women will take on Canada at Turnstone.
For those interested in learning more about the sport he loves, Welborn has a simple message.
“It's so much harder than it looks,” he said. “I would implore anybody to put some eyeshades on and get behind the ball a little bit. And that's not to say that not everyone can do it, because I think everyone can do it, I just want everyone to know we're doing the best we can, giving it our all and goalball is not a guarantee.
“We're working really hard out here.”