USA Takes 2nd Place at NORCA after Close Loss to Puerto Rico in Final

NORCA Champions, Puerto Rico (Center), Runners up, USA (Left) and 3rd place, the Dominican Republic (Right)

NORCA Champions, Puerto Rico (Center), Runners up, USA (Left) and 3rd place, the Dominican Republic (Right)

The U.S. came up short in its quest for gold last night losing to Puerto Rico 28-27.  Puerto Rico and the U.S. traded goals to start the game and the score was tied midway through the first half at 7-7.  Puerto Rico then secured a 2 goal lead and would never relinquish the lead the remainder of the game.  At the half they led 16-14 and they further stretched the lead to 26-20 with 10 minutes left in the game.  The U.S. then staged a comeback reminiscent of their first match, outscoring Puerto Rico 8-1, coming up just short in the end.

Team USA was led in scoring by veterans Kathy Darling with 7 and Sarah Gascon with 6.  Nicole Anderson added 4 while Ashley Butler and Jence Rhoads had 3 each.  Rounding out the scoring was Julia Taylor with 2 and Ashley VanRy and Zoe Lombard with 1 a piece.

Overall, it was a pretty successful tournament for the U.S. with 4 solid wins and 1 loss to hosts Puerto Rico in the Final.  This is particularly true, when one considers that without a full complement of athletes training at Auburn, roughly half the team hasn’t been able to scrimmage, let alone play regular competitive matches for the past 2 years.  While the competition in NORCA isn’t very strong this still is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the determination of the athletes who made significant financial and personal sacrifices just to attend the tournament.

The U.S., along with Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic (3rd place winners over Greenland) have also qualified for the Pan American Championships which will take place this June in Argentina.  Brazil, Argentina and Cuba will be strong favorites to finish in the top 3 and secure qualification for the World Championship, but the USA will be among several teams that will be looking to earn the fourth semifinal spot.

On Demand Video: Link

Team USA Qualifies for Panamerican Championships; Plays for NORCA Gold Tonight

Team USA celebrates a hard fought win over Greenland and qualification for the Panamerican Championships.

Team USA celebrates a hard fought win over Greenland and qualification for the Panamerican Championships.

Team USA held off Greenland 20-18 to earn qualification to the Panamerican Championships later this summer in Argentina.  Tonight they will play hosts Puerto Rico, winners over the Dominican Republic, 32-23, in the gold medal match at 1930 EDST.  Greenland will play the Dominican Republic at 1730 for bronze and the last ticket to the Panamerican championships.

The match between the U.S. and Greenland was tightly contested throughout with neither team leading by more than a couple goals throughout.  The U.S. led 10-9 at the half, but Greenland mounting a comeback in the 2nd half to take the lead.  The U.S. fought back with Ashley VanRyn aggressive play on offense to tie the game at 18-18.  At which point the U.S. clamped down on defense to close out the game 20-18.

Video (2nd half): Link (Courtesy of Greenland supporter, Boad Moller)

USA Post Game Celebration (USATH Facebook Page): Link

Tonight’s game will be broadcast live on 360 Deportes starting at 1930 EDST:  Link

Team USA Finishes Group Play with Resounding Win over the Dominican Republic

Julia Taylor on attack vs the Dominican Republic

Julia Taylor on attack vs the Dominican Republic

The U.S. closed out group play with an easy 26-13 victory over the previously unbeaten Dominican Republic.  Unlike its first two matches, Team USA, left no doubt as to who was the better team as it dominated the match from start to finish. Particularly encouraging was a stifling defense that limited the Dominicans to just 13 goals in 60 minutes.

Team USA was led in scoring by newcomer, Ashley Butler, with 7 goals. Kathy Darling had 4 goals, while Ashley VanRyn, Elizabeth Hartnett and Jence Rhoads had 3 a piece.  Rounding out the scoring were Jennifer Fithian with 2 and Nicole Andersen, Julia Taylor and Shani Levinkind with 1 each.

Note:  Nicole Andersen injured her knee in the first half and her status for tonight’s game is unknown.  Zoe Lombard has been cleared to play.

The U.S. will now play Greenland in the first semifinal tonight at 1730 EDST.  According to the U.S. Federation website a livestream of the match will be provided by Greenland supporter Boas Moller at his Facebook page: Link

The second semifinal will be between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic at 1930 EDST.

Analysis

Ashley Butler, left handed and just 19, has been a welcome addition to the U.S. providing a much needed scoring threat from the right hand side of the court.   She has dual German-American citizenship and has been playing since age 10.  She currently plays for HSG Hude Falkenberg in the Nordsee Oberliga (Germany’s 4th Division).  At 5’4”, she might be a bit undersized at back court, but against NORCA level competition she more than compensates that shortcoming with quickness and good court sense.  Against stiffer competition she may struggle to score at 9 meters and so could be a better fit at right wing.  As a lefty with good quickness she could progress through the club ranks at the right wing position and could be a mainstay with the U.S. national team for many years to come.

Regarding the upcoming semifinal, the U.S. can take comfort in making it through group play undefeated and finishing group play with a resounding, dominating win.  But, hopefully, it’s a reserved confidence as Greenland showed that it could compete with the U.S.  Key to the U.S., as usual, will be controlling the pace of play and avoiding turnovers.  In a helter skelter match anything can happen, but in a methodical game where the U.S. can set up their half court defense, they can dominate and control the match.

Team USA Stays Undefeated in NORCA Championships with a Win over Greenland

Ashley Butler leaps high as she scores 1 of her 4 goals for Team USA

Ashley Butler leaps high as she scores 1 of her 4 goals for Team USA

Team USA stayed unbeaten in North American & Caribbean Championships (NORCA) play with a hard fought 25-23 win over Greenland yesterday.  The match was a see-saw battle.  The U.S. dominated the first half and led 14-10 at the break.  In the 2nd half Greenland dominated the first 10 minutes of play with a 9-2 run to take a 19-16 lead.  The U.S., however, clamped down on defense at times marking Greenland’s Anja Salso.  The stepped up defense worked and the U.S. closed out the game with a 9-4 run for the 25-23 victory.

Kathy Darling again led the U.S. with 7 goals and currently is the overall tourney scoring leader with 14.  Ashley Butler and Sarah Gascon added 4, while Ashley Van Ryn and Jence Rhoads scored 3 each.  Rounding out the scoring was Julia Taylor with 2 and Elizabeth Hartnett and Shani Levinkind with 1 each.   Zoe Lombard and Nicole Andersen did not play as a precaution to concussion that each had previously received, but thet will hopefully return to the lineup tonight.

In last night’s other matchup Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic played to a 23 – 23 Draw. The current standings are

  • USA 2-0-0 4 pts +4 GD
  • Dominican Republic 1-0-1 3 pts +3 GD
  • Puerto Rico 0-1-1 1 Pt -2 GD
  • Greenland 0-2-0 0 pts -5 GD

The U.S. concludes Group play today with a match against the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic beat Greenland on day 1 and drew with Puerto Rico yesterday, so they are right behind the U.S. in the standings.  If the U.S. wins or draws vs the Dominican Republic it will finish Group Play in first place and will play the fourth place team in the semifinals which will be the loser of tonight’s Greenland-Puerto Rico matchup.  Should the U.S. lose tonight they will finish in second place and accordingly will play the winner of the Greenland – Puerto Rico match.

Video of the match is available via Greenland supporter Boas Muller’s Facebook Page:

1st Half Video: Link

2nd Half Video: Link

The U.S. – Dominican Republic match starts at 1730 EDST.  If there is a live video feed I will post it to the Team Handball News Facebook page.

Team USA Starts NORCA Tourney with Epic Comeback

 

Jennifer Fithian wraps up a Puerto Rican attacker.  Also in the picture, Nicole Andersen (99) and Shani Levinkind (23)

Jennifer Fithian wraps up a Puerto Rican attacker. Also in the picture, Nicole Andersen (99) and Shani Levinkind (23)

Team USA opened the North American & Caribbean (NORCA) Championships yesterday with a big come from behind 28-26 victory over hosts Puerto Rico.  The match did not start out well for the U.S. with Puerto Rico taking advantage of several U.S. miscues on offense to surge to a 17-11 lead at the half.

The second half, however, was an entirely different story as the U.S. started the half with 2 quick scores from backcourt player Nicole Andersen.  This triggered a 9-2 scoring blitz and a 20-19 lead for the U.S.  The U.S. then extended their lead to 24-21.  Puerto Rico fought back to tie the score 24-24, but the comeback was squashed when veteran Sarah Gascon stopped a fast break with a timely charging call and followed it up immediately on offense with a forced 7 meter penalty shot.

Kathy Darling led the U.S. scoring attack with 7 goals and Nicole Andersen added 6.  Zoe Lombard, Jence Rhoads and Amy Butler had 3 a piece.  Rounding out the scoring was Julia Taylor, Sarah Gascon and Shani Levinkind with 2 each.  Nathalys Ceballo led Puerto Rico with 7 goals.

The U.S. continues with Group play matches tonight against Greenland and Saturday vs the Dominican Republic.  There are 4 teams in the tournament and all 4 teams will advance to the semifinals on Sunday with the 1st place team playing the 4th place team and the 2nd place team playing the 3rd place team.  On Monday the semifinal winners will play for gold while the semifinal loser will play for bronze.  More importantly the 3rd place match will also be a qualification match for the Pan American Championships later this summer with the winner advancing and the loser staying home.

On Demand Video of Match: Link

Note:  Except for the finals (gold and bronze medal matches) only matches with hosts, Puerto Rico will be streamed.  This means that the U.S. matches between Greenland and the Dominican Republic will not be available for viewing and that the U.S. semifinal match on Sunday will be streamed only if the U.S. plays Puerto Rico.  The Final match on Monday should be available regardless of who the U.S. plays.

Analysis:  The U.S. and Puerto Rico have significantly contrasting styles.  Puerto Rico is a smaller, quicker team that excels when the pace of the game is fast with lots of transition fast breaks.  The USA is taller and has consistently shown that they can play solid defense in a half court setting.  Where the U.S. has often struggled, however, is with inconsistent backcourt play on offense leading to limited offensive output and too many turnovers.

In the first half the pace of play definitely favored Puerto Rico.  With too many turnovers by the U.S. leading to fast break opportunities.  In the second half, however, the backcourt tandem of Kathy Darling and Nicole Andersen started to click more effectively resulting in more consistent scoring and fewer turnovers.  With fewer fast break opportunities Puerto Rico was forced to score in a set offense where they were stifled by the U.S. defense which was further backed up by strong play by goalie Bryana Newbern.

This was a promising win for the U.S. which now has two more group play matches to further integrate newcomers based in Europe into a core group of veterans that has played together longer.

Team USA Loses to Chile in Rematch for 3rd Place

The pivotal moment of the game: USA's leading scorer, Sam Hoddersen is red carded for this defensive play.

The pivotal moment of the game: USA’s leading scorer, Sam Hoddersen is red carded for this defensive play

In a 3rd place match that would also determine qualification to the Jr World Championships the USA came up short 23-18 vs Chile. Chile led throughout the match, and the USA mounted several comebacks in the 2nd half cutting the lead to 1 on a couple of occasions, but could never get over the hump. With 8 minutes left and the score 17-16, Chile closed out the game with a 6-2 run for the eventual 23-18 victory.

Abou Fofana led the U.S. in scoring with 7 goals. Antoine Baup, Alexander Binderis and Sebastian Wheeler had 3 each and Sam Hoddersen had 2 goals. Chile was led by Aaron Codina with 8. Fofana had several nice jump shots at 9 meters and Antoine Baup’s circle play was outstanding causing several penalty shot opportunities and 2 minute penalties.

The key play of the match without a doubt was Sam Hoddersen’s defensive foul on Chile’s right wing Enzo Toro with 6:05 remaining in the first half. The play resulted in a red card and Hodderesen’s exclusion from play for the rest of the match. As is often the case with defense against the wing it was a bang-bang play that in real time looked pretty innocuous. As Toro writhed in pain on the court Hoddersen pleaded his case to no avail.

Video: Link (foul occurs at 29:07 on Youtube clock)

Further compounding my suspicion was a red card exclusion of Chile’s Ignacio Porta just a few minutes earlier. Porta had fouled USA Circle Runner, Antoine Baup, and had received his 2nd two minute suspension of the game. Porta then apparently mouthed off to the ref, receiving yet another two minute penalty and as it was his 3rd of the game he was then red carded. Could the red card on Hoddersen been a way of evening the scores? I speculated on this and other aspects of the decision in my live audio commentary.

After the match, however, I consulted 2 experienced officials and both concluded independently that the red card decision was justified. The video of the foul is not the best angle, but multiple reviews as well as screen shots confirm that Hoddersen bent his knees inward and cut off the player’s jump. The still shot while grainy clearly shows Toro’s takeoff as behind Hoddersen’s legs. Did Toro dramatize the foul a bit and the extent of his injury? That’s quite possible, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The foul was for contact while a defenseless player is jumping and such a foul is grounds for a red card.

The impact of the Hoddersen red card was dramatic. Indeed, Hoddersen had scored 17 goals against Chile in the first match which the U.S. won 31-24. More importantly, Hoddersen had been Team USA’s most consistent player on offense and without his involvement on attack, the U.S. was more prone to turnovers. Repeatedly, I saw instances where his steady hand might very well have resulted in an eventual goal instead of a turnover.

While disappointing this Jr Team will have an opportunity for redemption next month when they take part in the IHF Continental Cup against Colombia, Guatemala and Martinique. Additionally, 5 of the athletes, Paul Skorupa, Sebastian Wheeler, Amar Amitovic, Nik Zarikos and Rene Ingram are young enough to participate in the Youth (U19) Championships which will take place in Chile also this April.

Video (1st half): Link

Video (2nd half): Link

Note:  Brazil won the gold medal match with a 31-23 victory over Argentina.  For more information on the tournament check the PHF website: Link

Live Video and Audio Links: USA vs Chile 3rd Place Match

Team USA celebrating their Group Play win over Chile.  The 2 teams meet again tonight to determine which nation will go to the World Championships.

Team USA celebrating their Group Play win over Chile. The 2 teams meet again tonight to determine which nation will go to the World Championships.

Team USA will take on Chile today for bronze and more importantly qualification for the Jr World Championships this summer in Algeria.  These two teams met in Group Play with the USA coming away with a 31-24 victory.  Both teams later qualified for the semifinals with the USA scoring a 25-23 victory over Uruguay while Chile dispatched tournament hosts Paraguay 36-24.  And, in the semifinals both teams lost by lopsided margins.  The USA lost to Argentina 31-22 while Chile was crushed by gold medal favorite Brazil, 30-11.

But, of course, all those results mean very little now.  It all comes down to this match for the USA and Chile.  The winner punches a ticket for the World Championships.  The loser starts preparing for 2019.

The Panamerican Handball Federation has been providing a video stream of all the action from Paraguay and tonight I am planning to provide some live audio commentary via the Mixlr website.  Feel free to listen in and provide your own comments/questions via the Mixlr chatroom or via twitter.

Live Video Feed: Link

Live Audio Commentary: Link

Podcast: USA Men’s Jr Team Coach discusses the PHF JR Championships

USA Men's Jr Team Coach Mark Ortega

USA Men’s Jr Team Coach Mark Ortega

Mark Ortega discusses the Men’s Jr Team’s performance so far at the Panamerican Jr Championships in Paraguay.  USA has completed group play with a loss to Brazil and a victory over Chile.  They will likely face Uruguay in a quarterfinal match on Thursday at 2130 Local/2030 EDST.

Live Video Feed: Link

Note:  At 141 feet above sea level there’s no altitude issue with Asuncion, Paraguay.  I “obviously” was thinking of its fellow landlocked neighbor, Bolivia where the capital La Paz tops out at 11,913 ft.  God forbid there’s ever a championship there.

If you would like to advertise on the Team Handball News Podcast contact John Ryan at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com

Subscribe to the Team Handball News Podcast in iTunes: Link

Or use this RSS Feed to sign up for the podcast in your favorite podcast aggregator: Link

PHF Men’s Jr Championships:  Hoddersen’s 17 Goals Powers Team USA Past Chile

Team USA on defense vs Chile

Team USA on defense vs Chile

Team USA secured a 2nd place finish in Group B with a convincing 34-21 victory over Chile.  The match started out evenly and was tied at 8-8 midway through the first half.  The U.S. then pulled away for a 14-9 halftime lead.  In the 2nd half, Argentina cut the lead to 15-18 at one point, but the U.S. ran off 4 unanswered goals and never looked back closing out the game with 34-21 win.

Leading the U.S. in scoring  Sam Hoddersen, with 17 goals.  Chile had no answer for Hoddersen, who plays for German 3rd Division side, HSG Rodgau Neider-Roden, as he scored on fast breaks and multiple positions on the court.

Video of USA-CHI: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The U.S. is now finished with Group play and has a rest day prior to a quarterfinal matchup on Thursday  Barring a Chile win over heavily favored Brazil, the U.S. will finish 2nd in Group B.

In Group A action, Argentina beat hosts Paraguay, 33-23 while Uruguay held off the Dominican Republic, 41-38.  Argentina is likely to finish first in the Group while Paraguay is likely to finish 2nd.  Uruguay would then finish 3rd unless the Dominican Republic beats Paraguay in today’s final match.

After last night’s action, the group standings are

Group A
Argentina 2-0-0 4 points  +35 GD
Paraguay 1-1-0 2 points -2 GD
Uruguay 1-1-0 0 2 points -5 GD
Dominican Republic 0-2-0 0 points -28 GD

Group B
Brazil 1-0-0 2 points +28 GD
USA 1-1-0 2 points -21 GD
Chile 0-1-0 0 points -7 GD
Probable Schedule for Team USA

After a rest day on Wednesday, the U.S. will likely play Uruguay on Thursday in the quarterfinal.  With a win over Uruguay, the U.S. would then play Argentina in the Semifinals on Friday.  A win against Argentina would setup a likely rematch vs Brazil in the championship, while a loss would likely have the U.S. play the winner of the Paraguay-Chile quarterfinal match for 3rd place and the final ticket to the Jr World Championships.

PHF Men’s Jr Championships: Day 1 Results

Opening Ceremonies in Asuncion, Paraguay

Opening Ceremonies in Asuncion, Paraguay

 

Yesterday, the Panamerican Handball Federation (PHF) Jr Men’s Championships started with Brazil and Argentina scoring big victories in the opening round of Group play.  Argentina defeated the Dominican Republic 44-19 and Brazil beat the U.S., 52-24.  In the more closely contested 3rd match of the day hosts Paraguay beat Uruguay, 30-22.

After last night’s action, the group standings are

Group A
Argentina 1-0-0 2 points  +25 GD
Paraguay 1-0-0 2 points + 8 GD
Uruguay 0-1-0 0 point -8 GD
Dominican Republic 0-1-0 – 25 GD

Group B
Brazil 1-0-0 2 points +28 GD
Chile 0-0-0 0 points +0 GD
USA 0-1-0 points -28 GD

PHF Jr Championships webpage: Link

Today’s matches in Group A has yesterday’s winners and losers playing each other.  Argentina will be solid favorites over Paraguay, while Uruguay and the Dominican Republic will likely play each other for the 3rd place spot in the Group.

Group B will see favorites Brazil take a day off while Chile in the USA play in a match that will likely determine 2nd place for the group.  That match will be played at 1730 Local Time (1630 US East Coast Time).

Live Streaming Video: Link

Brazil vs USA

The U.S. played Brazil competitively in the first half and was only down 23-14 at the break.  The 2nd half was a different story as the U.S. tried a lot of different player combinations and was overwhelmed by Brazil’s deep bench.  The end result was 52-24.

Despite the big setback, USA Coach Mark Ortega, had an overall positive outlook on the opening match, noting that the team played hard for a full 60 minutes and has not yet had a full practice together.  2 starters for team USA only arrived the day of the match and surely were still working off some of the jet lag travel from a long journey.  He also singled out the play of goalkeeper Rene Ingram who had 8 defensive stops in the first half.  Coach Ortega is confident that his team will keep improving, particularly at the offensive end as they gain experience playing together.

Video of the match:  Link

USA Scoring
Sam Hoddersen, 6 Goals
Antoine Baup, 5 Goals
Abou Fofana, 4 Goals
Cedric Kolmann, 3 Goals
Paul Skoruba, 3 Goals
Sebastian Wheeler, 1 Goal
Michael Lee, 1 Goal
Amar Amitovic, 1 Goal

Panamerican Handball Federation (PHF) Junior Championships

Yesterday, Team USA vs Paraguay. Paraguay won the friendly preparation match 24-22

Yesterday, Team USA vs Paraguay. Paraguay won the friendly preparation match 24-22

The Panamerican Handball Federation (PHF) Junior Championships will take place this week in Asuncion, Paraguay.  Handball Junior Championships teams consist of players who are all either 21 years old in the current calendar or younger.  7 teams will be competing for 3 tickets to the Jr World Championships later this summer in Algeria.  Previously, the teams were drawn into two groups.

Group A: Argentina, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Uruguay

Group B: Brazil, Chile and USA

New Format for Competition

Anyone who has followed Panamerican handball competitions for a while has seen more than one tournament where the first key result has been the draw of the competition.  Often, what are perhaps 3 of the 4 best teams have been drawn into one group, resulting in a worthy team not making the semifinals.  With many PHF competitions awarding either 3 or 4 tickets for a World Championship berth those worthy teams could only watch in frustration as a weaker team from the other group played in the semifinals.

That won’t be an issue, however, with this tournament as a new format ensures that 3 teams from each group will advance.  The first place teams in each group will receive a bye to the semifinals while the 2nd and 3rd place teams from each group will square off for the right to advance to the semifinals.  So, 2A will play 3B and 2B will play 3A with the winners of each match taking on 1B and 1A, respectively in the semifinals.

USA Draw

Team USA probably received the best draw possible as they were placed in the 3 team group which under the new format guarantees them an opportunity of playing for at least 3rd place and qualification for the World Championships.  Further, they will be the only team to get a rest day on Wednesday prior to a likely 2nd place vs 3rd place match.  Likely, in that Brazil will be a prohibitive favorite to win Group B

Friendly Match vs Paraguay

On Sunday, Team USA lost a friendly match to tournament hosts, Paraguay, 24-22.  The U.S., however, were missing 3 European based players, Abou Fofana, Alex Binderis and Paul Skorupa, who have not yet arrived in Paraguay.

Team USA Schedule

Monday, 20 March          USA vs Brazil 1900 Local
Tuesday, 21 March          USA vs Chile 1730 Local
Wednesday, 22 March   Off
Thursday, 23 March        Likely match to determine semifinal opponent
Friday, 24 March               Semifinal
Saturday, 25 March         1st place or 3rd place match

Note: Paraguay is currently one hour ahead of U.S. East Coast Time

Youth National Handball Teams: A Waste of Time? Part 2: Looking at “Development” from a Sr Team Planning Perspective

Could the USA Men’s Jr Team side beat the Residency Program athletes currently training at Auburn? Based on the European club experience many on that Jr Team roster have I’m thinking the answer is yes and probably pretty easily. Why this Jr team’s roster has me looking at development from a different perspective.

Could the USA Men’s Jr Team side beat the Residency Program athletes currently training at Auburn? Based on the European club experience many on that Jr Team roster have I’m thinking the answer is yes and probably pretty easily. Why this Jr team’s roster has me looking at development from a different perspective.

In Part 1, I highlighted how historically, in terms of Jr players graduating to Sr team contributions, USA Team Handball has had very limited returns.  In Part 2 I look at why it might be different this time around and how sending dual citizens to Jr and Youth competitions can be considered a different kind of development.

Past Performance is no Guarantee of Continued Failure

Just because we’ve got little to show from past Youth and Jr National Teams doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to form teams for competition.  It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the future can’t have a different outcome.

Last November I had a podcast interview with Craig Rot regarding his efforts to build youth teams in Chicago.  Craig has done some great development work there and has convinced a number of kids to practice and compete on a regular basis. They’ve played Illinois St, Chicago Inter and Milwaukee in a series of mini tournaments and have more than held their own against older and more experienced competition.  Several of these athletes will be participating later this spring in the Pan American Youth (U19) and Jr (U21) team competitions.  I can’t speak to their future Sr Team potential, but these current athletes are clearly more committed to the sport than most Youth and Jr team athletes that we’ve had in the past.  Certainly, they’ve practiced and played more games together.

But, while these kids have clearly worked very hard and made significant progress we’re still talking about a very, very thin talent pool.  It all depends on how you want to define who’s playing handball, but I’m guessing among the “very committed” were talking 2 or 3 dozen players at most.  That’s better than zero, for sure, but we’ve got a long hard slog to get to the point where several hundred, let alone thousands of players are vying for 16 coveted slots.  If the U.S. were to send a team composed entirely of U.S. based players we’d probably be lucky to even win a game at the upcoming Jr Championship in Paraguay and the Youth Championship in Chile.

But, the roster of the U.S. teams traveling down south won’t be populated entirely with players who’ve just been playing the game for a couple of years.  No, the U.S. has effectively scoured Europe and identified pretty much every dual citizen handball player living there.  And, more importantly convinced them to play for the U.S. and to even fork over their own money for transportation to competition.  Why, one athlete even travelled all the way to Chicago to participate in the XPS Tourney games against Alberta.  That’s an impressive recruiting pitch!  Sort of like selling ice cubes to Eskimos.  And, then the team captain called me out on Facebook for a perceived slight.  Yeah, these guys are bonding as a team.

None of these players are full time professionals, but most are playing in quality competitions and they have the right mix of age and technical skills that could see them progress to the professional ranks.  Take a look at the video footage of some of these players on this fundraising site and you’ll come to the conclusion that this is a pretty decent nucleus for a competitive team.

Assuming all these players show up for the upcoming Pan American competitions the U.S. has a solid chance to qualify for the World Championships.  With the Jr program the U.S. could field an entire team of European based players.  This might not be enough firepower to beat Brazil and Argentina, but I won’t be surprised at all if they take the 3rd ticket.  The Youth team is not as European laden, but the challenge is less stiff with 5 tickets available for the Youth World Championships.

Mixed Sentiment

As I highlighted in my podcast interview with Craig and in this commentary post from 2011 I’ve got some mixed sentiment when it comes to dual citizens making a U.S. roster.  To be clear for Sr teams, particularly for qualification events, there’s no mixed sentiment whatsoever.  You’re there to win; Not to develop talent. Take the players that will provide the USA with the best chance to win. Period.

With Youth and Jr competitions, however, I’m more inclined to favor American based players as they are starved for meaningful competition.  For an American based player an overseas trip could be very well be transformational in terms of their development and commitment to handball as a sport.   With USA Team Handball’s limited budget, I’d have even a harder time justifying the expense of flying a European based player to the U.S. and then on to South America when that player is already training and competing in a superior environment.  There’s just too many other needs in a cash strapped budget.  My understanding, though, based on the social media funding sites, is that Federation funds aren’t being used, so if the players and their friends/family want to pay for their ventures, than who am I to complain?

Time to Start Planning for 2024 or even 2028

Further, one can make the case that it makes sense to start planning now for the real possibility of a 2024 LA Olympics.  Seven years may seem like a lot of time, but the reality is that we are already behind the power curve if we want to put together a team that won’t embarrass, let alone be competitive.  It’s not enough time to fully build up a grass roots program and I’ve got my doubts as to whether our residency program is chock full of great athletes who will be reaching their prime 7 years from now.  In fact, in a hypothetical match between the U21 side and the Auburn Residency Program I would make the U21 team a solid favorite.   Maybe the Residency Program has some great new recruits, but the U21 Team clearly has the advantage in terms of training and match experience.

And, if that’s an accurate assessment of our current talent pool than you can make a solid case to start expending funds on athletes that could very well form the nucleus of our 2024 Olympic Team.  Get them used to playing together as a team and have them experience what it’s like to head down to Latin America for competition.  Such experience might even set those athletes up for a realistic opportunity on down the line to qualify for a Sr World Championships.

A Different Kind of Development

Essentially, this would require looking at development similarly to the way a European Federation looks at development.  European Federations aren’t primarily looking at Youth and Jr National Teams as an opportunity to further develop the handball skills of promising young talent.  I’m sure some of those skills do get sharpened a bit, but there’s simply not enough time for skills training.  That’s primarily left to club coaches.  National Team Coaches have to focus more on team preparation related to bringing together a bunch of players that don’t train together regularly.  For these European sides, the “development” is the opportunity to evaluate promising players in terms of their prospects for the Sr National Team.  For the opportunity to assess their skills and attitude in a National Team setting.  To find out if a player that might dominate at the club level can also figure out what it’s like to be a role player on a team of stars.

While this perspective unquestionably makes sense for European nations and probably Brazil and Argentina in Pan-America I’m not so sure the U.S. is ready to go that route yet.  There are only so many passport carrying, handball playing young Americans training in Europe and we might have just had a lucky confluence of quality players conveniently grouping their births together.  A golden generation (by American standards) if you will.

And, we just don’t have enough programs in the U.S. like the one Craig Rot has set up in Barrington, Illinois.  Such efforts (traditional development if you will) take time to grow.  We’re nowhere near the numbers we need for a healthy sized talent pool.  A pool so deep that clubs can expect that only 1 or maybe 2 of their star players will get invited to a national team tryout.  Let alone make the team at the tryout.

Answering the Question: Waste of Time?

Well, in terms of return on investment the jury is out.  Certainly the Federation could establish a few key metrics like Jrs that have moved on to the Sr Team.  One huge possible metric could be how many become future Olympians.  If the 2024 Olympics are in LA I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the players taking part in the upcoming competitions find their way to the 2024 Olympics.  That alone means this trip is not an exercise in futility.

That being said, the question then becomes is it the best use of limited funds.  Here, the answer isn’t so clear cut.  With a really thin talent pool, I would argue that it would probably be better to first look at establishing and supporting programs that would broaden the talent pool of athletes that are under the age of 21.  But, then again the U21 team looks like a team with real potential and perhaps warrants greater support so that is a question without a clear cut answer.

And, while right now this is an argument about how to spend funding that does not exist that could very well change with sponsorship support tied to being an Olympic host hopefully coming in to Federation coffers.  Regardless, I’m sure folks will be watching these upcoming trips to South America to see what the future might hold for Team USA.

Youth National Handball Teams: A Waste of Time? Part 1: The Perilous Problem of Projecting Future Talent

Canyon Barry’s top claim to fame is his emulation of his father’s underhand free throw shooting style. Somewhere further down the claim to fame list is that he is perhaps the most famous American ever to try out for USA Team Handball.

Canyon Barry’s top claim to fame is his emulation of his father’s underhand free throw shooting style. Somewhere further down the claim to fame list is that he is perhaps the most famous American ever to try out for USA Team Handball.

As March Madness (the end of season knockout tourney for college basketball for those not living in the States) gears up the local paper here in Colorado Springs has a short feature article on a local product with some very strong genetics.  Canyon Barry is the son, Rick Barry, of one of the top 50 NBA players all time and his mother Lynn was an All-American in college.  Despite the genes and 3 half brothers that played in the NBA he was lightly recruited out of high school and played his first 3 years at a smaller school, the College of Charleston, before moving to Florida for his last year of eligibility.  The article highlights how his parents wary of the pressure having famous parents might bring didn’t push him to basketball and actually encouraged him to try other sports…  like team handball.

Indeed, back in 2009, Canyon Barry, tried out for an U18 team that USA Team Handball was putting together for a trip to Germany.  Just 15 years old and according to the newspaper article, only 5’11’’ and 98 lbs, I’m thinking he didn’t make a huge impression at the time.  Eight years later, he’s now 6’6’’ and 215 lbs and would surely be a player that could work his way on to a USA handball roster.  Problem is, though, is that he has a professional basketball career if he wants one.  Maybe not the NBA, as his dad thinks, but one in Europe.  Most likely he will bounce around for a couple of years in the NBA Developmental League and then get a shot at the NBA.  And, if that falls through he could head to Europe or pursue other ventures.  He had a 4.0 GPA undergrad and is now studying nuclear engineering so he’s got options.  Perhaps, he could eventually be enticed to pursue handball with the prospect of a 2024 Olympics in Los Angeles.  Possible, but more likely I suspect as he would be in his mid to late 20s he will decide to pursue other goals.

Projecting Future Talent: A Futile Task?

In reading this article about the tryout from 2009 I was struck at how comments projecting a bright future for the U.S. then are so similar to comments I’ve read more recently regarding the latest youth and junior teams that are gearing up for competition later this spring.  In hindsight, there’s little validity to the 2009 comments.  It looks like there were some quality athletes and from this report it appears they were competitive against the German club sides.  But, the reality is that out of the 28 athletes that made the trip only a handful still wear a U.S. uniform.  Of that men’s team, not a single athlete is listed in the player’s pool and I suspect most haven’t played handball in several years.  On the women’s side a handful of players remain.  Abou Zeida Farida has been at Auburn for the past few years, but has seen only limited action in national team competition.  Sophie Fasold, a dual German/American citizen continues to play club handball in Germany and for the USA.  Several other players played for a few years and contributed to successful PANAM Games qualification in 2011, but have since left the program for a number of reasons.  Most notably, Taylor Proctor, after a successful collegiate career at the Univ of San Francisco was highlighted last year as a potential returnee to the U.S. program.  For the time being, though, she has opted for a professional basketball career in Sweden.

Analytically, if one wants to focus on how national youth and junior teams have led to improved U.S. senior national team performance you’ll be hard pressed to find much historical data backing up such a claim.  And, this is true for a number of reasons.

  • A very, very small talent pool. It depends on how you want to define “the talent pool” but, rest assured, it’s a really low number.  Tryouts for these teams have often been simply about showing up.  Or, showing up with a willingness to pay for your own travel.
  • A talent pool that is not handball focused as their primary sport. Not only is the talent pool really small in most cases the athletes at these ages are just checking out this handball sport as an opportunity.  As soon as the trip is done it’s back to their primary sport.
  • The “too good” athlete. This might seem crazy to a European, but athletes like Proctor and Barry are problematic.  They’ve had good basketball careers and can make a living playing the sport if they so choose to.  Whereas, if they had been just a bit more mediocre they might be looking at playing handball right now or even a bit sooner.  Instead, if they do play again it might be in their mid to late 20s.  Where, I would project that they could become good enough to play for the USA at a 2024 LA Olympics, but not good/young enough to merit playing handball professionally.
  • Natural attrition. Regardless of the unique challenges handball must overcome, all sports have a significant number of athletes that don’t make the jump from Jr to Sr level representation.  In some respects the Jr competition serves as the testing ground to identify the future stars.  In other respects, it just points out to the challenge in projecting future talent.

All of these factors have contributed to a very modest return on investment in terms of future Sr Team contributions.  Olympian wise it’s surely a really small number.  I’m not sure about the Women, but I think Denny Fercho (96) might be the only male athlete to play as a Jr and Sr.  We didn’t compete in those events very often in the 70s, 80s and 90s, though, so that factors in.  But, even if one looks at any Sr National team athlete who’s played for the U.S. I’m guessing the percentage of prior Jr participation is around 10% or less.

But, just because we’ve got little to show from past Youth and Jr National Teams doesn’t mean future outcomes couldn’t be different.  In Part 2, I will look at the current Youth and Jr teams gearing up for Pan American competition and how they may be different from the past.