Erik Shoji (far left) energizes his teammates, and family, with his passion on the court
Both Erik and Kawika were members of USA’s 2016 Olympic bronze-medal team, and were bronze medallists at the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Men's World Championship and inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League Finals in 2018.
“It is a like a dream come true,” Erik said of playing with his older brother Kawika from youth club teams, at Stanford University and now with the USA national team. “We have really worked hard. We grew up in the gym. We always knew volleyball was in our blood, something that we wanted to do moving forward. It is awesome to play with him now, and even when we were kids. It is a great feeling to be out there to have someone that really knows you and loves you unconditionally.”
The Shoji brothers are sons of legendary collegiate coach Dave Shoji, who coached the University of Hawaii women’s volleyball programme for 42 years and won 1,107 matches and four national titles. Erik said his father’s influence was huge on their careers.
“He was a huge influence,” Shoji said. “He was a coach for 42 years. We were basically born into the gym into high-level volleyball. Beyond his own coaching, we were raised around great volleyball, great people and people we looked up to.”
While Erik has his brother Kawika there for brotherly support, he also has an extended family through his other teammates. One of their favorite activities on the road is bonding over dinner.
“I think team dinners is my favourite activity,” Shoji said. “The coaches give us great time off and allow us time to explore the city. We just enjoy going as a team for dinner and seeing every city.”
USA has explored Chicago in the past trips to the Windy City, but this week’s tournament has added significance as a business trip. The Americans are seeking yet another podium finish in a world-level event at the VNL Finals in Chicago.
The USA has already secured a spot into the semifinals before their final Pool A match against Russia tonight in Chicago. Shoji said facing his Russian club Fakel teammates – Dmitry Volkov, Ivan Iakovlev and Egor Kliuka - tonight has special meaning to him as he played club volleyball with the three Russians
“It is fun because there are three players on this Russian team right now that I played with overseas (in Russia with Fakel),” Shoji said. “They are good friends, great guys. I enjoy playing with them, and now it is fun to play against them. It is a little friendly rivalry that we have. It is good because (USA opposite) Matt Anderson and I both played in Russia, and we know these guys pretty well. We are familiar with them.”
USA’s path to the VNL championship could involve facing Poland and Russia, who are already qualified for the semifinals, and either Iran and Brazil. Shoji is well aware of the challenges in facing such teams who bring in huge crowds to support their country.
“It is almost like we don’t have a home court advantage,” Shoji said. “We obviously love playing here in front of friends and family. But we come into these tournaments knowing that if we play against Poland or Iran in Chicago that they will probably have more fans. They are fun, it is great to play in front of these fans because it gives a boost of energy.”
While the crowd gives a boost of energy to Shoji, he has displayed a knack for energizing his own teams with his passion on the court. He is well-known for his celebrations after winning points and says it has come naturally to him since he was a youth player.
“I enjoy seeing our team succeed and do well,” Shoji said. “As a libero, you don’t score points. You really have to celebrate the success of others. If you don’t, you are kind of like a blob out there. You really have to bring the energy. All my crazy celebrations, I can’t stop them. Sometimes I want to because they are too much. It is just fun.”
While the USA would love to win the VNL title – matching the accomplishment of the USA women’s team last week in China – the team is working toward another prize later this summer.
“We are taking it one match at a time,” Shoji said. “But obviously a win would just keep our spirits high and give us momentum into the next couple weeks (for the Olympic qualification tournament in the Netherlands). If there is an ultimate goal for the summer, that would be to qualify for the Olympics.”
Who is the funniest person on the team?
“I would say Max (Holt) and Ben (Patch).”
Which of your younger teammates have stood out the most in VNL and why?
“Ben Patch, he has put up some big points and added some depth for us at opposite. Micah Ma’a, I have known him since he was a baby. It is great seeing him out there and doing well.”