The 2023 USA Team Handball National Championships throw off Friday at 3:00 PM US ET at the Heminger Center on the campus of Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio. Twelve Men’s and 4 Women’s teams will be competing with matches taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a brief overview of the event:
The four women’s teams participating West Point’s 1st and 2nd teams, Ohio St and North Carolina. (The 1st team is identified as West Point-Black and the 2nd team is West Point-Gold). The four teams will first play a round robin which will be used to seed the teams for a knockout tournament with the Final being played on Sunday at 12 noon.
The teams are familiar foes as they are the same teams that participated in last year’s championships and they have already played each other several times this season. West Point-Black hasn’t lost to the other sides this season and is a strong favorite to defend their title.
Twelve Men’s teams will take part in the tournament and they have been drawn into four groups of three teams. The top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout tournament while the 3rd place teams will play in a consolation round robin group. Here’s a quick summary of the groups:
Note: West Point, Ohio St and North Carolina each have 2 team participating and a (1st) or (2nd) is used to initially define which is the designated 1st and 2nd team
Group A: Air Force, Tar Heels (2nd), SUNY Cortland: Air Force is the favorite to win the group with the Tar Heels likely to take second. Cortland is a brand new club playing in their first tournament so they will be looking to learn from these opening matches.
Group B: Ohio St-Scarlet (1st), West Point-Gold (2nd), Cincinnati: Ohio St-Scarlet narrowly lost to West Point’s 1st team in the championship match so they are the clear favorite to win the group. That said, they probably won’t want to overlook West Point-Gold which is the most competitive 2nd team in college handball. Cincinnati has not played Ohio St close this season so they are the likely 3rd place team
Group C: West Point-Black (1st), Ohio St-Gray (2nd), Auburn. Having won 14 straight titles it’s hard not to see West Point taking 1st place. Ohio St-Gray and Auburn will battle for 2nd place
Group D: Carolina (1st), Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Miami (OH): Carolina took 3rd place last year and is the favorite here. CWRU and Miami are relative newcomers and will face off for 2nd
U21 Players to Watch: 6 athletes represented the U.S. at the 2022 North American & Caribbean Handball Confederation Jr Championships (U21) where the U.S. finished 2nd and qualified for the World Championships this summer. Those athletes are
During the 2021 World Championships this past January, Gauthier Mvumbi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a media sensation and was christened the “Shaq of Handball”. This got the attention of Shaquille O’Neal and he even reached out to Mvumbi via Instagram. For a while Mvumbi was the darling of the handball media world, but I figured his 15 minutes was going to be up pretty soon.
Then a few weeks ago, Detroit Handball announced on social media that Mvumbi had agreed to be a handball ambassador for the club. I greeted this announcement with skepticism and, in part, it directly led to a recent podcast discussion on social media with Detroit Handball Club President, Joey Williams. During the podcast, I tried to get a straight answer as to just what this “ambassadorship” entailed, and from my perspective I never really got a satisfactory answer. Being somewhat old school, I wrote the whole thing off as pretty much attention for attention’s sake.
The Two Shaqs are Still Talking
But, then I read that the two Shaqs have continued their friendship and according to a recent interview in the French newspaper, L’Echo Republicaine, they are still in contact with each other. Further, Shaquille O’Neal apparently has some interesting in helping out handball in the U.S.
Here’s a translation of a portion of the interview
Gauthier Mvumbi, you will become the ambassador of US handball. Explain to us! I will help promote handball in the United States, help its development. I will participate in internships, summer camps, gala matches. I will go back and forth, but I remain above all a handball player in France or in Europe.
In which big American city? The Detroit club contacted me. In the near future, Shaquille O’Neal also wants to be involved and take on some responsibilities. Shaq would like to explore possibilities to help make handball more attractive in the U.S.; With a 5 year time frame.
Are you still in touch with the NBA star? We talk to each other regularly. The plan is to go to the U.S. in July and meet each other in person. That will be something!
Shaquille O’Neal as a Handball Ambassador?
Shaq wants to help make handball more attractive in the U.S.? Wow! It true, that would be a godsend of epic proportions. A few years ago I highlighted what USA Team Handball should look for in terms of new Board Members. I identified a need for millionaires (or even better, billionaires) and handball gospel spreaders, who could help educate the U.S. Shaq would be both in one package.
Shaq made a small fortune as an athlete ($292M on salary alone) and he continues to add to that fortune as a pretty effective ad pitchman for a number of different products. He’s got a fair amount of cash that could be put to good use. With the USA Team Handball budget at around $500K he could effectively buy out the organization if he wanted to.
But, where he would really shine is as a handball pitchman. He has millions of followers on social media and one Tweet or IG post from his Shaqness would effectively reach more new fans and players than a year’s worth of carefully crafted social media campaigns from various handball outlets in the U.S. and world-wide.
How Shaq Could Help Handball in the U.S.
Shaq as an ambassador and proponent for the sport could be an epic game changer in so many ways. Here are just a few ways he could help out:
Athlete recruiter: With a few targeted social media posts Shaq could reach hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of potential new handball athletes at all levels. Which, of course, would be really cool, but hopefully such a message could be coordinated with U.S. clubs nationwide so that they could be effectively prepared to engage with the new Shaq recruits.
TV and Web Streaming advocate: There currently is no TV home for handball in the U.S. beIN Sports TV and ESPN+ have failed to meet expectations. Shaq works for TNT and coincidentally, play by play for the Olympics will be provided by Matt Winer with NBA TV. Both properties are owned by Turner Networks which has been bought out by AT&T and will now be combined into a new to be named conglomerate with Warner Media and Discovery. A new media behemoth which will likely have a new streaming platform.
What if Shaq advocated for this new streaming platform to carry the EHF Champions League, the World Championships and other handball events?
What if they had Shaq, Kenny, EJ and Charles Barkley do an Inside the EHF Champions League show? And, maybe Matt Winer (with his newfound handball experience) could replace EJ as he has done in the past. Yes, those guys know nothing about handball, but, trust me, it would still be really entertaining!
Sponsor a college program: The interview states that Shaq wants to make the U.S. “Championnat” more attractive. Literally, that means the “National League” and the U.S. doesn’t actually have such a league. Our vast size and the amateur status of the sport pretty much makes that impossible and creating a pro or even a semi-pro league would require some major investment. While Shaq has the resource to create such a league, a more practical effort near term would be to beef up the U.S. collegiate competition. In particular, Shaq could support one college program with the intent of turning that program into a national power. As, I wrote last year a modest investment could very quickly create a national title contender. What college to choose, though? His alma mater, LSU is a candidate, but an HBCU would also be a possibility.
In Part 1, I highlighted the dramatic funding disparity between club and varsity sports. In Part 2, I review how much “Olympic Sports” cost Ohio St and why to a large extent American Football pays for everything.
There are a lot of ways one can classify or categorize the sports that are played at American colleges and universities. It can be confusing and sports are often lumped together in categories that can be misleading. Here are some of those categories and some basic definitions for them:
Revenue Producing Sports: These are sports which produce significant amounts of revenue and at many colleges they have a positive balance sheet.
Non Revenue sports: These sports do not generate much revenue and in most cases have a negative balance sheet.
Varsity Sports: These are sports that are managed and funded by a school’s athletic department
Club Sports: These are sports managed and partially funded by a school’s Student Services or Recreation Services department.
NCAA Sports: These are sports that are sanctioned by the NCAA. Schools choosing to participate in NCAA competitions are required to follow NCAA rules, particularly when it comes to recruiting and scholarships.
NCAA “Head Count” Scholarship Sports: These are sports where the NCAA requires every scholarship athlete to receive a “full ride” scholarship. (In other words everything is paid for.)
NCAA “Equivalency” Scholarship Sports: These are sports where “partial” scholarships can be awarded and split among the roster of athletes. Coaches can still choose to award full ride scholarships to some athletes, but this will then limit the number of partial scholarships available.
Olympic Sports: These are Olympic sports, but the definition is pretty fluid. Non varsity sports (which also happen to be Olympic) are usually not part of the discussion. Additionally no distinction is typically made as to what role these college competitions actually have in terms of developing athletes for Olympic competition.
These categories can overlap into some fairly complicated Venn diagrams, but I’ve tried to group them in terms of net revenue and their relevance to athlete development for future Olympic competitions. Remember this analysis is for just one college, Ohio St, and it was compiled using this publicly available data: link
Net Positive Varsity Sports
At Ohio St, and at most colleges, there are only two sports that generate significant amounts of revenue: American Football and Men’s Basketball. At Ohio State they are also way on the plus side and generated $55M and $14M respectively in 2019. And, as we shall see as we look at the rest of the categories they essentially pay for all the other sports that lose money.
Varsity Sports (Olympic: Primary Development Pathway)
These 21 sports are Olympic sports where college programs are the primary development pathway for future Olympic athletes. It can be debated somewhat as to how vital college programs are for each individual sport, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that the vast majority of the athletes in the sports listed above would not have been Olympians if these college programs didn’t exist.
Here’s some food for thought:
How much value is the USOPC and the individual sports National Governing Bodies (NGB) getting out of these programs at Ohio St? Well, if one divides the net revenue (-$27M) by the total scholarships (179.3) it amounts to roughly $150,000/year for each full scholarship athlete. Multiply that by 4 and that is $600,000 over 4 years of college education… all for 1 potential Olympic athlete. (Yes, if one wants to further divide by partial scholarships and walk on athletes (total 702) you’ll get a smaller number: $38,000/year or $153,000 over 4 years.) That being said, in most cases the top athletes with the most potential will probably have a full ride scholarship.
Keep in mind… that these college sports program cost the USOPC and the individual sports NGBs nothing. All of this development of athletes is “free” and does not come out of their budget.
And, this is just for one college. Ohio St is big college with a fine tradition and one of the largest budgets, but it’s still just one college. There are 130 large schools (D1 Football Subdivision Schools (FBS)). There are an additional 217 Colleges with sizable budgets (D1 basketball schools without a D1 FBS football program). And, then there are several hundred smaller colleges with sports programs, albeit with fewer or no scholarships.
All of this is paid by college football and to a lesser extent Men’s college basketball? How does that make sense? Did the players sign up for this?
Varsity Sports (Secondary/Very Limited Olympic Development and Non Olympic)
The 12 varsity sports above have only marginal or zero benefit in terms of the development of Olympic athletes. The reasons vary, but are mostly related to athletes turning pro without collegiate careers or in the case of gymnastics and synchronized swimming athletes become high level competitors without college training. And, then the last 4 sports listed aren’t Olympic sports. Baseball and softball will be back for Tokyo, but won’t be played in Paris. Lacrosse hasn’t been an Olympic sport since 1908 although they surely would like to get back on the Olympic Program.
A Side Note on Fuzzy Math
It should be noted that all of this self reported data from Ohio St should be taken with a grain of salt for multiple reasons. One big reason is the actual cost of a scholarship is open for a lot of debate. In most instances schools are not actually paying that full cost or losing out on the money that another non scholarship athlete would pay. Further, if one reviews the Ohio St database there’s some big accounting lines that aren’t associated with any particular sport. A whopping $75M (expenses) and $61M (revenue) is not explained or attributed to any individual sport. (See pages 15 and 16 in the report) I’m thinking one could probably actually attribute those costs if they really wanted to. As an example, how much time to you think the Athletic Director spends on football and synchronized swimming issues respectively?
Why this Crazy System?
If you ever live outside your home country, you’ll get the chance to see first hand how other countries do things and inevitably you’ll find yourself questioning how things are done back home. For me, personally, there were two big topical areas that came to mind. Health care and our sports structures. I won’t get into health care, but let’s talk a bit about how sports are organized in the U.S. and specifically, our college sports structure.
The European sports model is by no means perfect, but once exposed to it, it doesn’t take long for an American to compare it to the system they are familiar with… and start to scratch their head. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to look at the numbers above and defend this crazy system. Certainly it is impossible to do so from a fiscal viewpoint. Men’s football and to a lesser extent men’s basketball subsidize almost everything. That just doesn’t make any sense. And, worse the athletes playing those sports are not paid their market value and they have to become college students in order to play. Don’t get me wrong. Getting a college education is a good thing, but there’s no real reason it has to or should be tied to playing a sport.
So why do we have this crazy system? Well, if you do a little research you’ll discover that over time a system which made sense for amateur collegiate competitions gradually made less and less sense as two sports, American Football and Men’s basketball, grew into bigger and bigger sports with professional leagues. Instead of these sports becoming fully professionalized from age 18 and up, colleges hung on to these sports creating pseudo professional leagues which also became the de facto development competitions for the pro leagues.
At the same time other collegiate sports did not grow to the same extent, but since they were part of school athletic departments and the NCAA they were still provided substantial levels of support. This support was provided in part due to tradition and in part, due to NCAA requirements. Further, a U.S. law, Title IX required colleges and universities to provide equal opportunities in terms of sports and scholarships for women.
So essentially, over time we have created a system where hundreds of colleges in order to keep their cash cow revenue sports have agreed to fund dozens of other sports which are a net revenue loss.
A Crazy System, but it’s not All Bad
This system might seem a little crazy, but depending on where you stand it’s not all bad. More opportunities for women to play sports… That’s a good thing.
If you are involved with one of the dozens of sports propped up by this system it’s a great thing. If you are an athlete you have the opportunity to perhaps earn a scholarship and play in a well organized competition. If you are a high level coach there are multiple, good paying job opportunities. If you are part of the youth sports industry this system will help ensure that plenty of youth athletes will be interested in furthering developing their skills via sports clubs. If you are a sports NGB all of this development from youth to college is infrastructure that you don’t have to pay for. Indeed, it is often an additional source of revenue.
Of course, I know what supporters of these dozens of sports are saying as they read this. They are saying that their sport isn’t being propped up, but rather the demand from athletes was already there. That colleges are just responding to the growing demand from their sport.
I would argue, however, that they are exaggerating this demand in most cases. For sure, all sports have some level of intrinsic demand. Sports are fun and people play them just for fun. That being said most sports if they lost NCAA status, the great organized competitions that come with that status and, of course, the scholarships would see a significant decline in interest at all levels.
Different Tiers, Different Perspectives
Much has been written and said about how American football and men’s college basketball athletes should be paid for their efforts. After all they are bringing in revenue. Call these sports the top tier.
Much has also been written and said about the other NCAA sports that are in some cases now being cut from some schools. And, that these “Olympic Sports” are getting short changed. Call these sports the middle tier.
And, then there are sports like team handball and rugby with no NCAA status. Call this the bottom tier.
As a proponent of a sport in the bottom tier I can only look at the middle tier’s whining and say, “Give me a break! Good lord. You guys all lose money. Quit whining. You don’t realize how good you’ve got it.”
Here’s some food for thought for you:
Ohio St University (just 1 college) spends more on 33 sports than USA Team Handball does as a national federation. Yes, for the last several years the expenses for USA Team Handball has been around $500,000. Divide that in two for Men/Women and only Men’s Rifle and Women’s Pistol at Ohio State have a smaller budget.
NGBs which have an NCAA component typically receive more grant money from the USOPC than USA Team Handball does. Contemplate for a moment where those NGBs would be in terms of competitiveness and fiscal status if they didn’t have that NCAA component?
Finally, here’s something else that will have you scratching your head again. Quite a few scholarships are actually awarded to foreigners. In fact, in 2019 there were 3,455 international student athletes playing Division 1 sports. Roughly 12% of Division I. Yes, U.S. colleges are spending millions of dollars to develop foreign athletes; many that have gone on to win Olympic medals. How does that possibly make sense?
Time to start over? The pandemic has exacerbated the dramatic difference between Tiers 1 and 2 with some schools dropping some sports. But, maybe this just isn’t an issue between tiers 1 and 2? In part 3, I’ll discuss how the pie should be split more equitably between tiers 2 and 3.
As you might expect a number of people are very upset with this development. This includes the 1,500 athletes who in many cases have lost a partial college scholarship, the college coaches who have lost jobs and the Sports National Governing Bodies (NGB) that have lost multiple sources for the development of potential future Olympic athletes. Not to mention the entrepreneurial $30 Billion dollar youth sports industry that has sprung up in part to develop athletes to get those scholarships.
Many articles and comments are along the lines of what a shame it is that this collegiate support for “Olympic” sports is being lost. And, that it will inevitably impact Team USA performance in future Olympics. My gut reaction to all this hand wringing is…
Hold on a second…You’re not talking about “all Olympic” sports here. Cry me a river and welcome to my world, fencing, shooting, etc.
This visceral feeling is well founded, both as a former college handball player and coach. I’ve seen first hand the disparity in terms of resources and support with what an Athletic Department “Varsity” sport receives and what a Club Activity sport receives. It’s night and day. Varsity sport athletes have scholarships, full time coaches, dedicated practice space and substantial travel budgets. Club sports typically have no scholarships, volunteer coaches, often compete for gym space and sometimes get a little funding to defray a portion of their travel costs.
As I started working on this commentary, however, I realized that I needed to go beyond the gut reaction and that it would be better to quantify just exactly what the financial disparity actually is. This resulted in a trip down the rabbit hole only to discover that it’s even worse than I had imagined.
Ohio State University Support to Sports Programs
There are many colleges and universities in the U.S., but only 19 collegiate handball clubs in the U.S. For my initial investigation I chose Ohio State University which has an extensive NCAA sports program and a team handball club.
It took a little digging and some reorganization of available data, but here is a table which lists the total expenses for every varsity sports program and the team handball club.
For me, this data was a real eye opener. I always knew that club sports were getting the short end of the stick, I just didn’t realize how short it was. Seriously, handball’s budget is over 1,000 times smaller than men’s ice hockey. Or, just 44 times smaller than women’s pistol. Pick your varsity sport. It doesn’t matter. It’s a big difference. A really big difference.
Does such a big difference make sense? Should there perhaps be some reimagining about how this funding is allocated?
Of course, there should be. And, I’m not alone when it comes to such thinking. Recently, the New York Times published an essay by Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute, “Colleges Are Cutting Varsity Sports. That Could Be a Good Thing.” In the essay he make several great points about why indeed it could be a good thing. How such a shift could lead to fewer parents chasing scholarships for their kids and how club sports can often provide a better balance for students between athletics, academics and just being a college student.
Overall he concludes that:
“Reducing the number of varsity teams will mean fewer athletic scholarships, but also potentially less money spent pursuing them and more university support for other forms of campus sports.“
I’ve added the italics and boldface, because the words “potentially more university support for other forms of campus sports” are music to my ears… except for that pesky word, potentially. Because such a reallocation is easier said than done.
In Part 2, I’ll take I’ll examine what it might take for the word potentially to become reality. At the same time I’ll try and play devil’s advocate to justify why sports like Ohio State’s Synchronized Swimming program should continue to expend resources at a $1.1M/year clip.
I’m not generally one to make audacious predictions because… well, because data and thorough analysis usually result in the conclusion that it’s just not going to happen. But, sometimes audacity is indeed possible.
A former intern for the Pardon My Take (PMT) Podcast recently got a hold of a handball and has issued a few team handball related tweets (1, 2, 3). It’s always great when the sport acquires a new fan, but it also got me to thinking.
Could Billy Football or someone else, coax a few friends, start a brand new club and come out of nowhere to win a national collegiate handball?
On the surface, it seems crazy to even consider this as a possibility. How could a brand new club with totally inexperienced players win a national title? C’mon… And, for almost any other sport in the U.S. it would indeed be a crazy proposition. Most sports are just too established for some upstart to knock over the apple cart without a massive injection of resources and stellar recruiting.
But, team handball is not “most sports” in the U.S. Here’s why it could be done.
Few Contenders: There are currently only 15 Men’s collegiate programs in the U.S. And, only a handful of those programs are firmly established.
Minor Experience Gap: Colleges are guaranteed to lose athletes each year to graduation. And, since most athletes are brand new to handball every college has to constantly bring brand new handball players up to speed. Thus, even a brand new program has only a 1 to 2 years gap in experience.
Modest Raw Athletic Talent: The current collegiate handball game has several athletes with solid athletic talent, but overall the level of athleticism is fairly modest. This, of course, makes sense. The best athletes tend to get college scholarships in other sports.
So, what’s the blueprint for such audacity? Here’s what it would take:
Great Recruiting: Not traditional recruiting whereby a coaching staff convinces great high school athletes to commit to attending their college. But, in this case great recruiting to get the best possible athletes already on campus to commit to this club sport.
Great Handball Coaching: Taking great athletes and turning them into capable handball players is easier said than done. But, make no mistake. It can be done. And, a good coach could accomplish such a transition relatively quickly. Keep in mind… we’re not talking about a 5 year project to win an Olympic Gold Medal, but a much more feasible collegiate title.
Great Organization: There are a lot of nuts and bolts logistical issues that go into successfully running a collegiate club. From finding a time and place to practice, to uniforms, to transportation to tournaments. It doesn’t just happen. It takes planning and preparation.
Regular Competition Against Quality Opponents: Last, but not least, teams and players need to be tested in competition. And, generally that means getting your butt kicked by teams that are better than you so you can learn how to win.
So, could some random D3 College in say, western Massachusetts tick off these 4 boxes? Well, it’s possible, but right now, I would say they probably could only check off 3. Here’s what could be done.
Recruiting. In theory, it would be good to have some athletes that already know each other. Perhaps a group of seniors finishing off their D3 football careers could be coaxed into trying handball for a season. Ten such athletes would be a good core group to start with. Not future NFL players, but I suspect enough raw athletic talent to eclipse every other current collegiate handball squad, but perhaps West Point.
Handball Coaching. Unless there is some handball expert living quietly in the Berkshires I suspect this is going to be a problem. Maybe, however, some capable coach could visit for a handball boot camp. This might take some PMT sponsorship.
Organization. A coach or team captain with organizational skills is a must. It just requires someone to step up and take the lead.
Regular Competition. Western Massachusetts is in driving range of both Boston and New York City. A trip to Montreal wouldn’t be too hard either. If desired, there would be plenty of opportunities to play and learn the game.
The Wild Card: Pardon My Take Sponsorship
So while this might be possible, I’m thinking it’s going to need a little extra jolt to actually happen. And, there probably could be no better jolt than a little Pardon My Take sponsorship. What would that entail? Some publicity to encourage on the fence recruits, enticing a name coach to help out and for sure, some splashy uniforms.
Hey Big Cat and PFT Commenter: I know an Olympic Gold medal is the end goal, but you know what: Helping some random college come out of nowhere win a Collegiate National Championship would be pretty cool too. And, it would be great proof of concept trial run before embarking on a far greater challenge.
Would it be easy? No. It would take a lot of work, some humility and a lot of commitment. The other collegiate programs might not be world beaters, but there are some quality athletes out there and they have a head start in terms of experience. But, make no mistake it could be done.
Any Other Takers?
This, actually, is not the first time I’ve had such audacious thoughts regarding our college game. In 1976, Air Force almost won an open club title with a roster mostly composed of their D1 hoops tean (doesn’t hurt to have two future Olympians playing). It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a gifted group of athletes winning just a college title.
Three years ago, Virginia practically did exactly what I’ve described, losing to West Point in a close final, albeit it wasn’t done in a year, but was more of a 3 year effort. And, somewhat incredibly, they accomplished what they did without the benefit of a coach. (Podcast with UVA Handball: Link) I suspect if Virginia had had a coach with the requisite handball knowledge, recruiting and organizational skills they probably would have won a couple national titles. Might even have started a dynasty.
The reality is that right now a juggernaut college team could probably be created about anywhere in the U.S. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy and some locations would be more challenging… but, make no mistake it could be done. In fact, I’ve told multiple aspiring coaches in the U.S., that if they really want to show how good of a coach they are, they should start a college program from scratch and take that program to a national title.
As rugby in the U.S. is the closest parallel to what handball might someday be in the U.S., I regularly listen to several rugby related podcasts. It’s kind of fun to listen to discussion related to their NGB, their fledgling pro league or their college game and simply switch the word “rugby” with “handball” to see if it still rings true. Quite often it does and quite often it gets me wondering whether some development or effort being tried there could be applied in a handball context.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt has been using his Sports Center platform to honor High School and College Seniors who didn’t get to finish their final season. I respectfully submit Air Force Team Handball’s Eight Graduating Seniors for #SeniorNight.
A lot can happen in just a month. A lot.
On February 28-29, 2020, I had the opportunity to watch Air Force go 4-0 to take the title in their own Air Force Invitational. I had seen them play several times in the past few years and without a doubt I had never seen them play so well. A comprehensive 26-18 victory over North Carolina on Saturday and then an exciting last second, 28-27 victory over Dallas THC (Video) to take the title on Sunday.
Solid defense, smart shots on offense, limited turnovers. Individually some fine play, but clearly a collective team performance. After their victory over Dallas I made a point of telling the team that it was the best I’d seen an Air Force team play in years and made a prediction that was actually more of a declaration:
“Play like you did this weekend and you guys will beat West Point and win a national title.”
A bold statement since West Point has won 14 straight national titles and Air Force hasn’t beat them since 2008. Bold, but one that I stand by and not just because I’m a biased AF Academy graduate. In a different world maybe I would be sitting right now in the Columbus, OH airport writing about such a victory in the recently completed Gold Medal match at the 2020 College National Championships.
But, that’s not the world were living in now. And, it sucks… It sucks big time. Sucks for any handball player from any school that would have played in the Collegiate Tourney this past weekend. Sucks especially for the seniors.
For the eight graduating seniors at Air Force and the journey they’ve had it’s surely been really tough. Most of these eight seniors have been playing handball together all four years. They went from basic cadets with little or no knowledge that handball even existed as a sport to passionate athletes that have bonded over four years of practice and competition. The Collegiate National Championships would have been the culmination of that journey. One last opportunity to play for a title.
Like everyone the Cadet’s lives were upended by the Coronavirus Pandemic. But, this past month they’ve also been impacted in additional ways.
Just two weeks after the AF Invitational the Air Force Academy cancelled Spring Break. Most of the Air Force team had been looking forward to a trip to the Netherlands for a training camp and competition. Unlike most colleges, however, not everyone was sent home. Instead, just the Freshman, Sophomores and Juniors were sent home while the Seniors remained on campus to help ensure their on time graduation and entry into the Air Force. Additionally, to facilitate social distancing, all the Senior Cadets were moved into their own dorm rooms spread out as much as possible in the Academy’s two dorms. Classes then resumed online and for the seniors it became a surreal existence as the roughly 1,000 cadets left on campus were essentially “alone” together with strict limits on any interaction.
So now the 8 seniors will graduate early and all 8 will be headed to pilot training. (Contrary to what you might think not everybody who goes to the Academy becomes a pilot and for 100% of a sports club team to do so is kind of special.) Being a pilot is surely a dream and goal they’ve been working towards many years before heading to the Academy.
The minor downside for these 8: Being an Air Force pilot and continuing your handball career isn’t an easy or practical thing to do. Perhaps some of these guys will find their way to an open club nationals on down the line, but more likely than not several have played not just their last collegiate handball match, but their last handball match ever.
In a different world that last match would have taken place this past weekend. That’s a bummer… for them… for you… for me… for everybody.
On the plus side. These eight are going to be serving our country for years to come. And, we couldn’t ask for a better group of young men to do so.
Ross Miner was recently hired by USA Team Handball to be their Chicago area ambassador. As an ambassador he will be responsible for developing youth and college handball in the Chicago are.
In this podcast from 2016, Ross and I discussed Illinois St winning the Buckeye Classic and his handball journey from discovering the sport on TV during the 2008 Olympics to starting the club program at Illinois St and attending the Aarhus Academy in Denmark.
We also discussed the state of the college game and whether the weekend tournament format should be scrapped in favor of league play.
Original Post: Link Podcast on the Aarhus Academy: Link The college handball club graveyard: Link
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There are several references to the selection and identification of new regions (Accomplished: 5 “hubs” (New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles) have been selected.
There are several references to the establishment of regional leagues in the 2018-2020 time frame. (Not Accomplished: There are currently no regional collegiate leagues.)
A Final Four tournament for top collegiate programs was identified for the 4th Qtr of 2019 (Not Accomplished)
Plan (Feb 1st, 2020)
The Collegiate Strategic Plan was developed by a Collegiate
Working Group and provides more detail on collegiate goals and objectives. However, in my opinion, (similar to the more
broad USATH Strategic Plan) it strays in some instances into what might more
accurately be described as near term action plans. Here is an over of the plan’s contents:
Team Handball is a sanctioned NCAA Sport
Scholarship sport that competes for the best
Widespread media presence
Handball is a recognizable, established major
sport in America
2019-2022 College Strategic Plan Goals
1) Create a comprehensive and streamlined starter pack to allow a college student to create a college handball program in a semester and supply a resource person.
2) Have sustainable clubs playing 15 games per season in 72 colleges, including 36 women’s teams.
3) Have the structures and systems in place to grow participation of college club players by 400%.
4) Assemble the necessary capacity to achieve the goals of this plan.
5) Raise sufficient funds to achieve the goals of this plan.
In my opinion goals 1 and 4 are near term actions that will be implemented to support goals 2 and 3. Goal 5 is probably more suited for a broader discussion on fundraising. As I think they are more “strategic”, here’s a closer look at goals 2 and 3:
Goal 2: Have
sustainable clubs playing 15 games per season in 72 colleges, including 36
2.1 Recruit colleges proximal to existing clubs
2.2 Establish new clubs in locations with a
concentration of colleges based on receptivity and leadership
40 colleges by end of 2020
2.3 Provide competition structure leading toward
a National Championship in order to enable the best teams in the country play
2.3.1 Consider two-season structure to enable
2.3.2 Publish competition structure well in
advance to enable maximum participation
2.4 Develop and implement a path to ensure club
succession and continuation of administration
2.5 Provide support from USATH ambassador
Goal 3: Grow participation of college club players
by 400 percent
3.1 Raise the profile of team handball
3.1.1 In concert with USATH, develop and
implement a comprehensive promotion plan to have handball recognized across the
3.1.2 Offer resources for parents, coaches,
3.1.3 Focus on benefits of participation
3.2 In concert with USATH, ensure a pipeline of
athletes to join college clubs using the Athlete Development Model
3.3 Support established clubs
3.4 Provide pathway for athletes post college,
e.g. national team, city clubs, coach, referee, volunteering
In broad terms, I would assess that the overall goal of collegiate development is to:
Increase the number collegiate athletes, clubs and leagues (Increase participation)
Improve the level of collegiate play
In terms of increasing the numbers of athletes, clubs and leagues several targets have been presented, but they could use further definition. Here are some clear targets that I emphasized in bold face in the text above:
Have sustainable clubs playing 15 games per
season in 72 colleges, including 36 women’s teams.
Grow participation of college club players by
Of particular note, the text highlighting “playing 15 games per season”, seems to provide a benchmark for a club program. Essentially, making the point that there’s a significance difference between a club that plays 15 matches and a club that holds a couple of practices and plays in one weekend tournament. If that is the definition of a collegiate club it also decreases the # of clubs. Using the 15 match requirement for the last two seasons, there would have been this many clubs
2018-19 (9 Men/2 Women)
2019-20 (7/3) (I used 10 matches as the season has
Participation growth is not defined, but it would logically
have a strong correlation with the growth of the # of the clubs. Depending on the “start date” and the number
of existing clubs at that point in time one can then project the number of
clubs needed to obtain 400% growth. As
an example, the U.S. had 15 men’s collegiate clubs and 3 women’s collegiate
clubs during the 2018-19 season for a total of 18 clubs. 400% growth would then be 90 clubs. If one uses an average of 15 athletes per
club, the total number of collegiate athletes for the 2018-19 season would be
18 clubs x 15 athletes for a total of 270 collegiate athletes. 400% growth would equate to 1,350 athletes by
the end of 2022. And, of course,
participation could also be simply assessed by totaling up the annual number of
collegiate USA Team Handball memberships from year to year.
Improving the Level
In terms of improving the level of play I would assess that
both documents could use more specific targets related to accomplishing this
goal. The USA Team Handball Strategic
Plan mentions “Athletes identified out of University Programs” in a few places
and references “pipeline development”, but there is not much “meat on the
bones.” The Collegiate Strategic Plan included
several bullet points that point to improving collegiate competition, but lacks
Here, though are some potential candidates:
USA Performance in World University Handball Competitions: Link (Actually participating would also be good. It’s doubtful that the 2020 Championship will take place, but 2022 could be a possibility.)
Numbers of collegiate athletes (Current/Former) on Youth (U19), Junior (U21) and Senior national teams
Numbers of collegiate athletes being identified for further development by International Clubs
Numbers of collegiate athletes transitioning to U.S. Clubs
I haven’t identified the actual numbers (and dates) that should go with these targets, but would suggest that the Board of Directors consider adding these targets (with dates/numbers) for future updates to the Strategic Plans.
That wraps up “What we want” for College development. Part 3 will take a closer look at Fundraising and Marketing
College Season Heating Up…but the Championship has been Postponed
Some recent matches have upended the Collegiate Top 5, but on the top of everyone’s minds is the recent decision by USA Team Handball to postpone the Collegiate National Championships. Originally scheduled for 3-5 April at Ohio State University the tournament has now been postponed due to concerns with the Coronavirus situation and Ohio State’s recent decision to suspend all “In-Person” classes until March 30th.
This is a shame because the championship was shaping up to be one of the most interesting and potentially wide open contests in years. Yes, Army- West Point, is still the odds on favorite, but several sides have stepped up their game and seemed poised to provide them a real challenge. Here are the result of the latest poll.
Army: Per usual, Army has had an outstanding season and is unbeaten in college play. They are also on track for a 2nd place finish in the Northeast Team Handball League behind NYC.
Air Force: Air Force was beaten soundly by Army in November 40-28, but in January at the Cal Cup, the margin was just 31-29. More recently, they went 5-0-0 at their own tournament and had an impressive 26-18 victory over previously unbeaten North Carolina. This victory (no surprise) vaulted them to #2 in the standings.
North Carolina: North Carolina has a 14-0-2 overall record and their top accomplishment this year was winning the Carolina Blue Cup. They’ve been a consistent performer, but the loss to Air Force dropped them to #3
Ohio State: Ohio State has a 10-1-1 overall record and in February they knocked off previously unbeaten Pittsburgh 31-19. This record and the key victory over Pitt has vaulted them to 4th place, but all their wins have come at home. It remains to be seen how well they can do against sides that play against tougher competition.
Army (2nd Team): Army’s 2nd team took 2nd place at the Carolina Blue Cup and this performance earned them a 5th place ranking. In the semifinals they shocked perennial power NYAC and in the finals they only lost, 31-29 to North Carolina. The only question mark? The roster for the side that played in Chapel Hill had some players who’ve also seen 1st team action this season. So, it was perhaps a better 2nd team side then the team that has played in other competitions.
Lots of questions marks remain regarding the evolving Coronavirus situation and it’s impact on sporting events. The USA Team Handball announcement even suggested that attendees hold off on making travel plans for the that the Club National Championships scheduled for 8-10 May in Detroit. Even if the Coronavirus concerns get resolve with students finishing up the semester in May and seniors graduating it could be very challenging to reschedule the college championship. Yes, it would certainly be a huge disappointment, but there’s a very real possibility that there won’t be any more college handball this season.
During this past weekend’s Air Force Invitational I conducted several interviews and they are all featured on the latest podcast for download.
Interview 1) William Kennedy of Texas A&M and Moshe Mukori of Concordia College talk about playing for Dallas THC at this tournament and their efforts with their respective college programs. – Video: Link – Subscribe to the Team Handball News YouTube channel: Link (so, you don’t miss videos like the exciting end to the Championship Match: Link)
Interview 2) North Carolina’s Alex Laws discusses the Air Force – North Carolina match, the current state of collegiate handball and the challenges of recruiting athletes for the collegiate game. I also ask him a variation of the Jay Cutler challenge: Could a select group of UNC football and basketball players beat the Carolina Handball team?
Interview 3) Tournament MVP, Air Force Nate Luther after the Championship game, Air Force’s defense strategy and his evolution as a player over four years. And, also whether a group of AF football and basketball players could beat the AF Handball team
Interview 4) Air Force coach, Mike Cavanaugh, reflects on the tournament, the waning days of stickum, some of the challenges with roster integrity and the last time Air Force beat West Point. (Note: I was a bit confused regarding Air Force’s planned trip to the Netherlands over Spring Break; Their spring break is a different week from Ohio State, so it’s a separate trip.)
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And, be sure to check out the podcast archive with interviews and great handball discussion going all the way back to 2006: Link
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Air Force and North Carolina met this past Saturday in a key collegiate team handball showdown that will certainly have implications on the Top 5 Collegiate Poll and seeding for the College National Championships.
Coming into the North Carolina was undefeated with an 11-0-0 overall record and a 5-0-0 record in collegiate competition. Winners of the Carolina Blue Cup and a #2 ranking. Meanwhile Air Force had been in and out of the Top 5 and a far less gaudy 2-0-11 record, arguably against tougher competition.
Earlier in the day North Carolina lost to Dallas THC, 29-23, meaning that the pool play match between the two teams would also likely see who would make the championship match.
The match started out competitively with Air Force taking a two goal lead in the first ten minutes. Gradually, though, Air Force started to pull away from Carolina. To stem the tide, North Carolina used a somewhat unique 7 vs 6 attack with GK, Jack Moore leaving the goal and essentially playing center back. This strategy had mixed results offensively and Air Force failed to fully capitalize on several empty net opportunities. Regardless Air Force was able to extend their lead to 12-6, before North Carolina went on a mini 3-1 to close out the half and limit Air Force to 13 – 9 halftime lead.
The second half featured more of the same with Air Force gradually extending their lead and North Carolina never really threatening to get back into the contest. Air Force’s peak lead was 25-15 and the final score was 26-18.
Air Force used a variety of defenses including a pressure man to man defense which prevented North Carolina from ever getting into a comfortable flow. This defense along with an outstanding performance by GK Austin Faulkner limited North Carolina to just 9 goals each half.
Speaking with North Carolina leading scorer, Aaron Hamm, after the match he highlighted that it was a well deserved win by Air Force, but that they missed having their #1 GK Jared Floyd, who couldn’t attend due to a family emergency.
Air Force team captain, Austin Faulkner was pleased with the Air Force performance noting that North Carolina had beaten Air Force last year at College Nationals and the win was a big confidence booster for the club.
Air Force has no more stateside competition prior to College Nationals, but most of the team is headed to the Netherlands over spring break for a training camp.
Air Force Scoring Nathan Luther 6 Kyle Gruzka 5 Richard Vaughn 5 Quinton Riddle 3 Anthony Sanders 3 Mark Simpson 2 Tevin Miller 1 Brian Brown 1
North Carolina Scoring Aaron Hamm 8 Philip Schwarte 4 Alex Laws 3 Jack Moore 2 Joe Reinhardt 1
Pool Play Air Force 33 – 18 Air Force (2nd Team) Dallas THC 28 – 20 Salt Lake City North Carolina 30 – 24 Air Force (2nd Team) Air Force 34 – 21 Salt Lake City Dallas THC 29 – 23 North Carolina (Video Excerpt: Link) Salt Lake City 27 – 26 Air Force (2nd Team) Air Force 26 – North Carolina 18 (Video Excerpt: Link) Dallas THC 36 – 22 Air Force (2nd Team) Air Force – Dallas THC (Not Played) North Carolina – Salt Lake City (Not Played)
Note: The last 2 pool play matches were not played since they would have been meaningless matches between the same teams that would later meet in the Championship and 3rd place games. Instead a friendly was played between the Air Force 2nd Team and North Carolina’s reserves.
3rd Place North Carolina 25 – 20 Salt Lake City
1st Place Air Force 28 – 27 Dallas THC
This was an outstanding back and forth competitive match which saw tournament MVP, Nathan Luther score the decider in the closing seconds. Be sure to check out the video of last 8 minutes of the match: Video 1Video 2
Awards Top Scorer: Paul Assfalg: Dallas THC Most Valuable Goalkeeper: Austin Faulkner Most Valuable Player: Nathan Luther
North Carolina hosted 11 teams this past weekend at their annual Carolina Blue Cup Tournament and they ended up taking the title. Here’s a summary of the results with a focus on the 4 collegiate clubs (North Carolina, Army, Virginia and James Madison) that participated.
The 11 clubs were split up into 3 pools of 3 teams and 1 pool of 2 teams. Each pool played a full round robin and here are the results.
North Carolina 29 – James Madison 18 James Madison was no match for the #2 Tar Heels. North Carolina was led in scoring by Leandro Pappalettera with 7 goals while James Madison’s Nick Federovitch and Kevin Plunket had 5 goals a piece.
Quarterfinals and (9th-11th) Pool Play
Both Army and North Carolina won their quarterfinal matches. North Carolina beat the UVA Alumni team 31-23. Jordan Mason led Carolina scoring with 7 goals and Nick Vorobiov added 6. Army beat Swim & Sports Club 30-21. Nathan Chilian led Army with 7 goals while Ryan Thistlewood added 5.
Virginia 31 – James Madison 24 In 9th-11th place consolation play Virginia got revenge for a loss to JMU two weeks ago in Northeast Team Handball League (NTHL). JMU actually led 12-11 at the half, meaning that Virginia totally dominated the 2nd half for the eventual 31-24 victory. Virginia was led in scoring by Lincoln Ambrose and Ben Kilpatrick with 10 goals each. James Madison’s Nick Federovitch, Tom Fonti and Kevin Plunkett scored 4 each. Both teams also knocked off Philly in consolation play.
Semifinals and Placement Games
In one of the biggest upsets in U.S. club history, Army shocked perennial U.S Open Championships contender NYAC for a 35-34 victory. For some context on the upset: NYAC’s roster featured at least 9 former national team players and 2 Olympians while Army’s roster had no players with more than 3 years club experience. Army was led in scoring by Ryan Thistlewood with 10 goals. Nathan Chilian and William Considine added 9 and 7 goals respectively. In the other semifinal North Carolina easily beat Saskatchewan 34-24. Leandro Pappalettera led Carolina with 8 goals and Aaron Hamm added 7.
North Carolina 31 – Army (2nd Team) 29 (Gold Medal Match)
It was all collegiate affair for the tourney title and North Carolina came out on top 31-29. North Carolina was led in scoring by Leandro Pappalettera with 11 goals. Alex Laws scored 6 and Aaron Hamm added 5. Army was led in scoring by William Considine with 9 goals with Nathan Chilian adding 6.
Notes – I’ve been told by several tourney attendees that the Army team participating, West Point Gold (Army’s 2nd Team) was supplemented with some players that have played for West Point Black (Army’s 1st Team). And, that it was an all underclassmen team (no seniors). So perhaps this “combined team” might be considered as better than Army’s 2nd Team, but not quite as good as Army’s 1st Team. – North Carolina’s Leandro Pappalettera is an exchange Grad student from Argentina, and as you might have guessed from his goals scored he’s an experienced player. However, unfortunately, for North Carolina they will be losing that extra scoring punch soon, since he is headed back to Argentina and will not be attending College Nationals.