MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (May 29, 2107) – Roughly eight months after the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. Men’s Sitting National Team returned to the tournament floor at the USA Volleyball Open National Championships.

Even though the players were scrimmaging each other, the festive atmosphere at the USA Volleyball Open National Championships made it special. Players and spectators from other teams stopped to watch and ask about sitting volleyball. Later, the national team players would split up onto various teams to play in the sitting volleyball division.

“It’s amazing,” said outside hitter J. Dee Marinko. “There are people that would stop and stand and watch. That’s awesome just to get that exposure.

“You have people who don’t understand what the game is who just go ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

The U.S. Men’s Sitting Team made huge strides during the last Paralympic quadrennial, finishing second at the Parapan American Games to qualify for their first Paralympics since 2004.

The team went 0-4 in Rio, but Head Coach Greg Walker said the improvement in the team is obvious and what the players and staff learned in Rio will help them reach the next level.

“My peers, the other national team coaches, made a lot of comment about how much Team USA has developed and how impressed the were with our level of play,” he said. “We have the right tools, we just have to get more experience in competition.”

The players know the lessons they learned were incredibly valuable and they plan to build on the experience as best they can.

“It didn’t go the way we would like, unfortunately,” Team Captain Eric Duda said. “I learned from a leadership perspective. Last time (at the 2004 Paralympics) I was a role player, this time I was a leader. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of experience.

“For the rest of the guys, it was international experience that we’ve been hurting for. The crowds were the biggest crowds of any sport. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Marinko said the experience made him optimistic about the team’s future.

“We’re really close,” Marinko said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever taken a set off Germany and we took them to five. Just one or two more players and maybe we’re playing for third or fourth.”

Duda, Marinko and teammate Dan Regan all hope to play for another four years. But they also know that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are not a given.

“We’re getting to the point where being on the team isn’t guaranteed anymore,” Regan said. “You’ve got guys fighting for that same spot… I think that drives the level of competition up.”