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16 September 2006

United States wins Gold Medal at 2006 World Wheelchair Rugby Championship

Christchurch, New Zealand - In 2002, the U.S. Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby National team was a heavy favorite to win yet another World Championship title, but the Americans were upset by archrival Canada in the final, and the team has been left with a bitter taste in its mouth ever since. Now, four years later the United States has recaptured the gold medal at the 2006 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, defeating host country New Zealand, 34-30, to win the championship.


These two teams met just two days ago when they squared off in the final game of pool play. The U.S. walked away with an easy eight-point victory, but with today's stakes so high, both teams took to the floor with greater energy and intensity.

The teams traded goals for the better part of the opening frame, but with just over three minutes remaining, and the score tied 6-6, Mark Zupan (Austin, Texas) got a jump ball call and the U.S. took possession from New Zealand. The U.S. nearly turned the ball right back over, but they managed to hang on and a goal by Zupan gave the U.S. its first lead of the game, 7-6.


The U.S. and New Zealand turned up the physicality of their play in the second quarter. Both teams were hitting harder and applying even more pressure to the ball. While New Zealand wasn't able to shake the ball from the U.S., the Americans finally got a steal with just under four minutes to go in the half, and an Andy Cohn (Mesa, Ariz.) goal put the U.S. up 15-13 at the break.


During the third quarter, the U.S. had several near turnovers and communication breakdowns that could have shifted the momentum, and the advantage, to the Kiwis. But, the United States managed to maintain its 2-goal advantage throughout the quarter and finished the third with a 25-23 lead.


The U.S. defense continued to stifle the Kiwis right from the start of the final quarter. New Zealand was forced to use its last timeout on the first possession of the fourth and had to play the remaining eight minutes with no timeouts. Then, the U.S. pulled off the full-court press and dropped into the key, making New Zealand run more time off the clock on offense which would give them fewer opportunities to score.


The Americans showed they are as much of a threat in the half-court as they are when they're pressing. The staunch U.S. defense forced yet another turnover with just under 3:30 to play and another of Cohn's 10 goals gave the U.S. the 3-goal edge, 31-28. One final New Zealand turnover with 30 seconds to go and an ensuing score by Zupan, who led the team with 14 goals, put the United States up by the final score of 34-30 and earned the U.S. the title of World Champions.


"This is one of the best teams I've ever been a part of," said Zupan. "After four years of hard work, it feels awesome to win this."

U.S. head coach James Gumbert (Austin, Texas) added, "It's overwhelming. It's so incredible to be part of something that these kids have worked so hard for and to see them get this success is a very special experience."


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