Editor’s Note: Watchdog reporters attended a recent tournament of goalball teams that included Towson’s new club. What follows are a series of narrative podcasts and a feature article on the sport, as well as a first-person account from a reporter who doubles as a TU goalball player.
By Muhammad Waheed
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A ball with jingling bells is the primary sound you hear when you walk into Knefley Gym at The Maryland School for the Blind during a goalball match.
Such was the case on Nov. 10, as the school hosted a goalball tournament featuring teams from across the region. Goalball, a sport for athletes with and without visual impairments, is a three-on-three competition. Players on each team wear eyeshades that block their vision. They roll a three-pound ball back and forth and use their pads constantly while diving on a wooden floor to block the ball with their bodies.
Players at the tournament ranged from high school students to middle-aged adults — a rarely seen age disparity in sports.
“It reminds you that the game is more than just a game — that this is a way of bringing everybody together,” said Matthew Mescall, a physical education teacher at The Maryland School for the Blind and head coach of both MSB and Towson’s goalball teams. “[Players are] here from all different backgrounds and all different ages coming together to play the game they love. They’re going to be here all night playing and nobody’s going to throw a complaint out there.”
MSB and Towson hosted the event as a way to provide high school, college and national goalball teams an opportunity to play, socialize and learn from each other. Mescall said the age difference among athletes was a non-factor, as younger players were learning from the more experienced ones and the veterans were also learning new techniques from the younger athletes.
The Maryland Raptors, one of two national teams at the event, defeated Towson 16-3 in the first game of the weekend.
“Well, for us it’s a good learning experience,” said Tim Utzig, a visually impaired sophomore and Towson University goalball’s vice president. “It’s intense and for us right now I’m glad we got that out right now.”
Towson’s team, which started during the last academic year, is still learning how to play together. Other teams have been in existence far longer, which is a huge advantage in a sport where players rely heavily on knowing teammates’ tendencies.
“All the players, they love this game,” Mescall said. “They think about this moment months in advance and they just dream about being on the court, and when it comes time and you put all this pressure and you have all these people here they let the pressure get to them and they forget how much they love this game and that it’s just for fun.”
Kelvin Atkinson, president of the Maryland Raptors, and some of his teammates used to attend MSB while in high school. Atkinson was pleased to return to where he was introduced to goalball and was excited to see how far his former team had come.
“It feels great just to be able to come back to my home school.. and you know just play in front of our team,” Atkinson said. “I feel like the patience and the hard work we’ve been putting in is paying off and it’s nice to see that my school is recognizing it.”
The Raptors recently played in a national tournament in Tennessee. Atkinson said most team expenses including travel costs and pads were paid by athletes.
Goalball serves an important purpose for Atkinson, who has a visual impairment.
“It just gives me a sport,” Atkinson said. “You know I haven’t ever played football or had those opportunities to play with a team and build a bound, and I think that sports like goalball, where everybody’s on the same page, allows me to really have that opportunity to feel that bond to play with some teammates.”
John Jones, a fully sighted sophomore at Towson University, joined his school’s goalball team during the spring 2017 semester. He found the sport by walking into a gym at Burdick Hall.
“It means that I get to have a new perspective on the whole sports culture cause I played sports as a kid like baseball and soccer and tennis and golf, and I was able to do so well because I was able to see and react in that way, but changing of the senses, changing up moving the vision and using my hearing to play has really changed how I look at sports in general,” Jones said.
Jones said that he has become good friends with his two teammates who have visual impairments and is able to interact with them beyond the sport of goalball.
Rachael Talbert, a sighted sophomore at Towson University and an aspiring teacher, also found benefits of playing goalball with two visually impaired teammates.
“It kind of gives me an insight of what works best for them as learners too so not only am I allowed to work with them as people and get to know them as people, but I’m also able to like maybe help my students later on if they have a visual impairment to understand what kind of needs they have. So yeah, it’s really nice,” Talbert said.
By Muhammad Waheed
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A lot goes through an athlete’s mind when playing a sport. The athlete likely focuses on strategy, communication and playing correctly.
Each sport is different in regards to the thoughts athletes have in their minds while playing. When I play goalball, I think frequently about strategy and communicating with teammates, but the best thing for me is to not think much at all.
Finding open or weak gaps – spots where the ball can go between defenders guarding a goal — is important for teams looking to score. I work with my coaches and teammates to figure out which gaps are either open or weak. My team and I collectively build a scouting report as a game progresses and try to figure out our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The teams I’ve played on usually avoid the opposing team’s top athlete and try to find the athlete who might be struggling or not covering a gap well.
My team first rolls the ball into all five gaps exploring which ones have a higher likelihood of being open. I rely on cues from my coach, who usually keeps a clipboard keeping track of how many goals were scored by each team.
My coach provides feedback to me on which gaps I should aim for, but does a lot more. He will talk to me during timeouts or stoppages in play to correct my rolling and defensive forms. My mind then shifts to listening to my coach’s feedback.
I often get critical of how I defend or roll the goalball. I was taught to roll the goalball with power while maintaining a smooth throw. I think of the proper steps to follow while getting ready to roll the ball which includes making sure I square my body up with the goal behind me, using proper footwork, finding a good grip on the ball, maintaining a good wind up and having a smooth release. My coach has made defense a simple decision for me. I need to quickly decide whether I stay on the line I am assigned to cover or whether I go and defend a gap. The decision to stay or go is made by me listening to the ball and trying to react as fast as I possibly can in order to block the ball.
My teammates and I are only successful if we communicate often. There have been times during competitions where a teammate or I stop communicating and the game usually gets out of hand for my team. Calling out simple cues such as where we think the ball is before it’s thrown helps improve communication. I have to constantly remind myself to say “got it” after I make a block. The “got it” phrase informs my team that I’ve made the block. Saying the word “loose” is essential if I blocked the ball but lost track of where it went.
Knowing whether you’ve scored or missed on a roll is important. The official blows the whistle twice if a goal is scored and that auditory cue gives me the indication of being successful on the roll. My coach also informs me of which gap I rolled the ball to on a scoring play. My coach, during a stoppage in play, will inform me of how far off I was from scoring on a play where I don’t get the ball to cross the goal line.
Injuries are a part of sports, but not everyone notices them. I have a tendency to get hurt while playing. Sometimes I’ll get hurt if I don’t get into the proper defensive position. The impact or injury is usually to my face when I don’t get into the correct defensive form. Sometimes injuries just occur as they do in other sports. I usually don’t figure out when I’m bleeding unless I feel it during a stoppage in play or a coach or official asks me to go to my team bench to be examined by proper medical personnel.
I’ve been told that I must get into the proper defensive form and must use my arms to cover my face to prevent future injuries to my head. The key in this situation is just remembering to slow down and follow all steps of getting into the right defensive form.
My coach always tells me to not overthink while playing. My performance actually improves when I don’t think too much about how I should roll the ball or how I should dive. Reducing what I am thinking of and remembering to have fun helps me enhance my play on the goalball court.