Libero Erik Shoji embodies young blood being injected into Team USA
24-year old libero Erik Shoji is one of a few newcomers in the team, together with his elder brother Kawika and setter Micah Christenson. They all come from Hawaii where “volleyball is maybe the sport no. 1 or 2” Erik says. “We all play volleyball since a very early age in parks or maybe on the beach. It is good that we have so many players from Hawaii in the national team right now and we are doing our best to represent Hawaii as good as possible. Vaafuti Tavana is also from another island just nearby; Clayton Stanley also hails from Hawaii, so we may well say that our state is the real volleyball Mecca in the US”.
Shoji joined the senior national team only this year and volleyball is somehow in the genes of his family, for – apart from brother Kawika – also his father is involved in the sport, being the coach of the women’s volleyball team at University of Hawaii. “I am very happy to be in the team with my brother” Erik says. “We are very close and it is always good if you have a friend around with whom you can travel together and share the whole summer.”
Erik made his debut with Team USA this year in the World League and after spending the last season in Germany he moved to Austria to play there for their national vice-champions Hypo Tirol Innsbruck. “With the World League I already moved up to another level; the next step came as I signed for Hypo Tirol as we are playing in the CEV Volleyball Champions League and here that steady development is continuing for I have the opportunity to play the best teams in the world. I am getting to test the likes of players that I previously watched only on TV, so this is very exciting.”
Once the tournament comes to a close Erik will fly straight to Austria where Hypo Tirol is waiting for him and where many more matches are coming up for him in the national league as well as in Europe’s elite club competition. “Fortunately everybody there speaks good English, also in town, so I do not have to learn German” he says with a smile. “I am pretty happy with what we have done so far here in Japan: we played a good game with Brazil and even though we lost in three sets, their coach said that it felt like a tie-breaker and so it was for the score was always very close. We are particularly happy with yesterday’s victory over Italy while today we did not finish our job with Iran. They simply played better than we did when it counted and especially towards the end of the sets.”
Erik is following in the footsteps of Richard Lambourne who was USA libero for many years. “Richard is still around and we got the opportunity to train together this summer. We became friends and he is always ready to help me by sharing his experience and giving advices here and there.”
Team USA came to Japan with a mix of young and very experienced players: “Well, when some of these guys like Reid Priddy won Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008 I was only 18” Shoji recalls. “We have been together now for quite some time and I got to know them a lot better. I think the atmosphere in the group is really good and we get along quite well. You know, if you spend so much time together, you get to know each other and even though they have been together for quite some time, I really feel good with the team.”
On Sunday Erik will complete his first major tournament playing reigning Olympic and European champions Russia and though USA lost to Iran on Saturday, the Shoji siblings still can go for their first major medal together. As their mentor John Speraw stressed already a few times since the start of the tournament, the USA are working on a long-term programme whose primary goal is to perform well and be ready for a strong comeback at the Rio Olympics after they missed on the semis last year at London 2012. The Shoji siblings are much needed to help USA Volleyball accomplish that mission.