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Teamwork key as visually impaired vie in goalball tournament

MIDVALE — Two teams of three take their positions on the court, spreading out side by side on opposite baselines, ready to defend the goals behind them.

One player picks up the blue, basketball-size ball and rolls it underhand in the direction of the other team’s goal. The bells inside the ball jingle as it rolls toward one of the players, who drops from his knees and lays on his slide to deflect the shot.

All six players are wearing eyeshades, leveling the playing field among the visually impaired athletes.

“It’s kind of like a combination of bowling and dodgeball,” explained Jeannie Schuneman, a 17-year-old South Sevier High School student and one of about 45 youths competing Friday at the 2018 Utah Goalball State Championship Tournament at the Copperview Recreation Center. “But instead of dodging the ball, you want to have the ball touch you, you either want to make sure it gets out or that you catch it so you can try to get a goal.”

Schuneman has been playing goalball for about four years, she said. It’s a Paralympic sport specifically designed for the blind and visually impaired.

“It helps with teamwork,” said Schuneman, who is legally blind. “Most sports that involve teams are for people with sight. Like, I can’t play volleyball because I wouldn’t be able to track the ball with the type of vision impairment I have.”

Visually impaired youths from across the state have been practicing since January for Friday’s state tournament, said Jalayne Engberg, a teacher of the blind and visually impaired, and president of the Utah Foundation for the Blind.

“All of these kids are visually impaired students,” Engberg said. “All of them have … different levels of vision impairment, but we make everything the same (because) everyone wears a blindfold while they play.”

Goalball was invented in Germany following World War II, she said, “as something for a lot of the blinded veterans to do.”

“What I love about (goalball) is a lot of the time kids who are blind or visually impaired … can’t compete fully in a game for sighted players,” Engberg said. “So here it’s an equal playing field. … And it’s a team sport, so they get to be part of a team. It’s great for them.”

Jacob Sorenson, 19, has been playing goalball since age 7. He’s been a part of state and regional goalball teams, and now is playing in adult tournaments.

“It’s a Paralympic sport now, so it’s starting to get more relevant around here,” Sorenson said.

Because players are visually impaired, string is run along the boundaries, and the players use those guidelines to orient themselves on the court and position themselves to defend their goal.

“You can feel where you are and not get lost,” he said. “You listen for the ball, and once you hear the ball coming toward you, you lay on your side and block the ball. Then you stand up and throw it back to the other side and try to make goals.”

Engberg said players at Friday’s tournament also were being evaluated for positions on U.S. Paralympic goalball teams.