U.S. Paralympic Volleyball Team Preview

U.S. Women's Sitting Team Paralympic Preview: 
 When the 2016 Paralympics begin Sept. 7 with the Opening Ceremony, the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Sitting Team will have one goal on its mind: Make Paralympic history.

The U.S. Women are seeking the program’s first Paralympic gold medal after earning medals at each of the three previous Paralympic Games. China has won gold every Paralympics since women’s sitting volleyball was introduced in 2004.

RELATED: U.S. Women’s Paralympic Roster | U.S. Men’s Paralympic Roster | Rio Microsite

The U.S. Women made their Paralympic debut in 2004, shocking the world with a bronze medal finish. The fledgling program gained strength and momentum in the ensuing four years, battling China for gold at the 2008 Games, but bringing home a silver medal. In London, the U.S. Women hoped to complete the medal cycle but once again fell to China in the gold medal final.

To the casual observer, China, ranked No. 1 worldwide since 2004, may seem favored to win a fourth consecutive gold medal. However, the U.S. Women hold a 6-4 record against their rivals since 2014, and have topped the Chinese in all three meetings this year, including winning gold at the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup in Anji, China in March.

 “We’ll continue to push the confidence factor against China,” Women’s Sitting Head Coach Bill Hamiter said. “We know we’ve played well against them when they’re at their best, and we shouldn’t back down from playing them.”

Leading the U.S. are four-time Paralympian Lora Webster (Phoenix, Arizona), and three-time Paralympians Katie Holloway (Lake Stevens, Washington), team captain Heather Erickson(Fayetteville, North Carolina), Nichole Millage (Champaign, Illinois) and Kari Miller (Washington D.C.).

Erickson was named MVP and “Best Spiker” at the Intercontinental Cup, also receiving a 2016 ESPY nomination for “Best Female Athlete with a Disability.” The trio of Webster and Holloway packs a powerful punch that forces an opponent’s defense to elevate its game. However, any success will require contributions from the entire roster.

“We’re looking for consistent play from everyone,” Hamiter said. “We know the abilities of our athletes and we want them to use those as abilities as consistently as possible. If we play at our level, we give ourselves a good chance of winning every match.”

The No. 2-ranked U.S. Women will meet China in pool play along with No. 9 Iran and No. 13 Rwanda; the latter two are making their Paralympic debut. Host-nation Brazil automatically received the top seed for the tournament, putting China, seeded No. 2, and third-seeded U.S. together in Pool B.

The U.S. Women’s Sitting Team begins its Paralympic competition on Sept. 10 against Iran, a team it defeated 3-0 at the Intercontinental Cup in March. Despite the sweep, Hamiter expects a tough, scrappy opponent. Although the Iranian women’s team is less experienced, the country has a rich history in sitting volleyball: The Iranian men have medaled in every Paralympic Games since 1988, with five gold medals.

“The (women’s team) knows how to play, how to coach and their players are well-versed in the game. They’re very smart players and they play with a lot of heart. They’re not going to let easy balls go down,” Hamiter said of the U.S.’s first opponent. “We saw a lot of positive things from them in March and we’ll have to be at our best and make sure we play really good defense.”

The U.S. Women face China on Sept. 12 and finish pool play against Rwanda on Sept. 14. The top two teams advance to the semifinals in a crossover match against the top two seeded teams from Pool A, comprised of Brazil, Ukraine, Canada and Netherlands, which replaced Russia following the International Paralympic Committee’s ban of the Russian delegation.

Brazil and Ukraine are the top-seeded teams in Pool A and are likely candidates to advance to the medal round. However, worldwide No. 5 Netherlands and Canada are not too be overlooked.

U.S. Paralympic Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team Roster
No. Name (Position, Height, Hometown)
1. Lora Webster (MB, 5-11, Phoenix, Ariz.)
2. Bethany Zummo (L, 5-2, Dublin, Calif.)
3. Alexis Shifflett (S, 5-4, Waseca, Minn.)
4. Michelle Schiffler (OH/MB, 6-0, Lake Wales, Fla.)
5. Katie Holloway (OH, 6-3, Lake Stevens, Wash.)
6. Heather Erickson (OH, 5-11, Fayetteville, NC)
7. Monique Burkland (OH, 5-9, Ardmore, Okla.)
10. Kari Miller (L, 5-6, Washington D.C.)
13. Nichole Millage (OH, 5-7, Champaign, Ill.)
14. Kaleo Kanahele (S, 5-6, Edmond, Okla.)
16. Nicky Nieves (MB, 5-10, Kissimmee, Fla.)
17. Tia Edwards (OH, 5-7, Skitatook, Okla.)

Head Coach: Bill Hamiter
Team Leader: Michelle Goodall
Assistant Coaches: Cara Lang and Lazaro Beltran
Technical Coordinator: Jeff Hicks
Athletic Trainer: Patrick Lawrence

2016 Paralympic Games Women’s Sitting Volleyball Pools
Pool A: Brazil, Ukraine, Netherlands, Canada
Pool B: China, United States, Iran, Rwanda

2016 Paralympic Games Women’s Sitting Volleyball Schedule
All times EDT

Sept. 9
Brazil vs. Canada, 5:30 p.m.
Ukraine vs. Netherlands, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 10
China vs. Rwanda, 9 a.m.
USA vs. Iran, 1 p.m.

Sept. 11
Canada vs. Netherlands, 2:30 p.m.
Brazil vs. Ukraine, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 12
Rwanda vs. Iran, 9 a.m.
USA vs. China, 5:30 p.m.

Sept. 13
Netherlands vs. Brazil, 10 a.m.
Ukraine vs. Canada, 5:30 p.m.

Sept. 14
USA vs. Rwanda, 9 a.m.
Iran vs. China, 1 p.m.

Sept. 15
Women’s 7th-8th Classification, 12:30 p.m.
Women’s 5th-6th Classification, 2:30 p.m.
Semifinal 1, 5:30 p.m.
Semifinal 2, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 17

Women’s bronze medal match, 3:30 p.m.
Women’s gold medal match, 6 p.m.

U.S. Men's Sitting Team Paralympic Preview 

The U.S. Men’s Sitting Team is eager to prove itself at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in the team’s first appearance since the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.

The team qualified for the Paralympics with a silver medal finish at the ParaPan American Games. The U.S. Men’s Sitting Team has never won a Paralympic medal and this year’s roster is hungry to make history.

RELATED: U.S. Men’s Paralympic Roster | U.S. Women’s Paralympic Roster | Rio Microsite

Captain Eric Duda (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) leads a roster with eight players who have upwards of five years of international sitting volleyball experience. Duda is the longest-tenured member of the team and will play in his second Paralympic Games after first appearing on the 2004 Athens roster.

Other key veterans include setter James Stuck (Puyallup, Washington), J. Dee Marinko (Newcastle, Oklahoma) and Chris Seilkop(Victoria, Texas) who is playing in his fourth Paralympics and rejoined the team in November 2015 following a 9-year retirement.

Since taking over as head coach in January, Greg Walker has worked closely with the team’s veterans and support staff to implement new offensive and defensive systems intended to capitalize on the team’s athleticism and strength. Off-court preparations have been equally important.

“We’ve spent a lot of focus on trust and accountability and what it means to be a team,” Walker said. “That’s a vague statement, but we’ve broken down what compiles and creates trust, and probably the biggest culture change we’ve implemented is listening to the message, not the tone and being receptive to adversity.

“We have both military and non-military players and everyone has had to overcome a battle of some kind. It’s trying to find common ground and realize that we’re all there to fight for each other.”

The balanced emphasis on trust, teamwork and on-court preparation will be key as the U.S., seeded eighth in the Paralympics and ranked No. 9 worldwide, takes on host-nation Brazil, Egypt and Germany in pool play.

“Our guys are really familiar with (these teams) and we know what they excel at,” Walker said. “It’s great to hear them talk about specific players on the teams and know that they have their eyes set on every team in our pool.”

The U.S. opens Paralympic competition against Brazil on Sept. 9, followed by Germany on Sept. 11 and Egypt Sept. 13. The top two teams advance from pool play to face the top two teams from Pool B – Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, China and Ukraine, replacing Russia following the International Paralympic Committee’s ban of the country’s delegation – in the semifinals.

“We know the match against Brazil is going to be a very loud, emotional game,” Walker said. “Their coach has a great relationship with their indoor team, and any game there is going to draw a loud and spirited crowd.

“Our guys have been preparing how to be more efficient in communication when talking on the court and hopefully that will help, regardless of who we’re playing.”

The Paralympics mark the U.S. Men’s first competition since a 0-6 finish at the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup in Anji, China. However, Walker does not view the March tournament as indicative of the team’s ability or potential following six months of intense training. Additionally, the team posted a 7-5 record in two competitions in 2015, preceded by a 6-4 finish in 2014.

Against Germany, the U.S. will have a unique advantage: German outside hitter/middle blocker Alex Schiffler – and husband of U.S. Women’s Sitting Team’s Michelle Schiffler – has spent much of 2016 training in residence with the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team.

“Alex has helped from both a physical and a tactical side,” Walker said. “It’s been cool to see because he used to dominate our gym, but now he blends more, which means our skill level has increased and become more consistent.”

The Paralympic Games begin Sept. 7 and conclude Sept. 18. NBC is broadcasting a record 66 hours of coverage. Additional information, broadcast schedules and live-streaming options will be made available at a later date.

U.S. Paralympic Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team Roster
No. Name (Position, Height, Hometown)
2. Dan Regan (Middle Blocker, 6-0, St. Louis, Missouri)
4. 
Ben Aman (Outside Hitter, 6-5, Tacoma, Washington)
5. 
Eric Duda (Outside Hitter, 6-5, Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
6. Jese Schag (Setter, 6-2, Norway, Illinois)
8. 
James Stuck (Setter, 6-5, New Kensington, Pennsylvania)
10. 
Edgar LaForest (Outside Hitter, 6-2, San Juan, Puerto Rico)
11. 
Roderick Green (Middle Blocker, 6-3, West Monroe, Louisiana)
13. 
Charlie Swearingen (Outside Hitter, 6-3, Gulfport, Mississippi)
14. 
John Kremer (Libero, 5-9, Buford, Georgia)
15. 
Chris Seilkop (Outside Hitter/Middle Blocker, 6-6 DeLand, Florida)
16. 
Josh Smith (6-2 Opposite, Riverside, California)
18. 
J. Dee Marinko (Outside Hitter, 6-4, Norman, Oklahoma)

Head Coach: Greg Walker
Assistant Coach: Joe Skinner
Team Leader: Dixie Collins
Athletic Trainer: Katherine King

2016 Paralympic Games Men’s Sitting Volleyball Pools
Pool A: Brazil, Egypt, Germany, United States
Pool B: Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, China

2016 Paralympic Games Men’s Sitting Volleyball Pool Schedules
All times EDT

Sept. 9
USA vs. Brazil, 9 a.m.
Egypt vs. Germany, 1 p.m.

Sept. 10
Iran vs. China, 5:30 p.m.
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Ukraine, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 11
Brazil vs. Egypt, 9 a.m.
USA vs. Germany, 5:30 p.m.

Sept. 12
China vs. Ukraine, 1 p.m.
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 13
USA vs. Egypt, 1 p.m.
Germany vs. Brazil, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. China, 5:30 p.m.
Ukraine vs. Iran, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 16
Men’s 7th-8th Classification, 12:30 p.m.
Men’s 5th-6th Classification, 2:30 p.m.
Semifinal 1: 5:30 p.m.
Semifinal 2: 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18
Men’s bronze medal match, 8:30 a.m.
Men’s gold medal match, 11 a.m.