COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Jan. 23, 2019) – Two veterans of the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team have been named Co-Players of the Year for 2018.

Eric Duda, 37, has been with the Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team for more than 15 years. James Stuck, 35, has more than 11 years’ experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, Zach Upp, 18, has been named the team’s Most Improved Player in his second year.

All three contributed to the team’s eighth-place finish at the 2018 ParaVolley World Championships, its best finish ever. Duda was named the tournament’s Best Receiver.

But the tournament was bittersweet for Duda, whose father passed away in the United States while Duda was competing in The Netherlands.

“It felt great to have the best finish we’ve ever had at the event. It shows we’re moving in the right direction,” Duda said. “I was surprised and happy to receive my first individual award. But my father’s passing in the midst of the competition put it in perspective.”

The highlight of the season for Duda was the team’s invitation to the World Super 6 competition in Iran. The U.S. team of seven players finished sixth.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Duda said. “We had a great experience. The people were welcoming. It was great playing high-level volleyball.”

Off the court, Duda took over as the inaugural head coach of the men’s volleyball program at Life University in Georgia, which meant he had to balance training for the sitting team with his coaching duties.

“I love the challenge, at least for now,” Duda said.

Stuck’s life off the court was similarly hectic in 2018, but for another reason. Stuck and wife Kim welcomed son No. 3 in December of 2017 and family took on new importance. Stuck stopped working outside coaching jobs.

“When things hit the fan, family has got to be there,” Stuck said. “If not, things are not going to go well.

“With three boys, 1, 5 and 7, it is a constant revolving door of change.”

On the court, Stuck called the World Championship finish a highlight of his season; but said travel is what really stood out.

“In four months, I traveled roughly 100 days,” Stuck said. “I love travel. I love being able to play different teams. I love going to other countries and playing.”

Right after World Championships, Stuck had surgery on his shoulder.

“In Netherlands, I was having trouble just raising my hitting arm, but I continued to play,” he said. “I had two tears in my labrum. While he was in there, the surgeon discovered my bicep tendon was severely damaged as well.”

Stuck has found new appreciation for the sport during his recovery.

“I’m looking forward to a lot of volleyball n 2019,” he said. “It’s my passion, my hobby and my job.”

Both Duda and Stuck credited the Men’s Sitting Team staff, and particularly Head Coach Greg Walker, with improving the team and its culture.

“I have to thank Greg for giving me the opportunity to play setter,” said Duda, who might not be an obvious choice for setter as he is missing the fingers on his left hand. “I was going to retire after Rio (2016 Paralympic Games). Greg asked me to stay.’”

Stuck added, “Greg has encouraged players to step out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves my making positive errors on the court. It’s OK to challenge yourself and fail.”

The changes have been a benefit to Upp, who joined the team in 2017.

In 2018, the teen became a resident athlete at the U.S. Sitting Teams’ headquarters in Edmond, Okla. The move made all the difference for his improvement.

“My movement has definitely improved,” he said. “I used to be very slow and had trouble moving around.”

Upp is 6-foot-5 and was born without his right hand. He wears a carbon fiber prosthetic when he plays but is working on strengthening his right side as well.

“I need to gain strength in my right arm. I didn’t do it when I was younger,” he said. “With blocking, it’s definitely more difficult to get my hands over the net and push over. I have gotten better, and I have a long way to go.”