Having a Ball with Handball

Nov. 19, 2012

Pacific University handball players, coach look to expand notoriety of the sport.

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People with the athleticism to chase a palm-sized ball back and forth across a 40- by 20-foot court play one game: handball.

For the past 35 years, Pacific University handballers have been making waves in the sport. Since the team’s inception in 1977, Boxers have participated in 30 national championships, placing second and third for the past few years.

Mike Steele, head coach of Pacific’s handball team, describes the sport as an intriguing game, comparing it to boxing, as players go head to head and “only one person comes out with a win.” Steele described it as a “thinking person’s game,” emphasizing that there is not an idle moment during the matches and crediting it as a “sheer workout.”

Handball isn’t as widespread as football or basketball in the United States, but it is a popular sport internationally. The 2012 World Handball Championships were held in Dublin, Ireland, this year from Oct. 11 to 21. Pacific alumni and students Steve Sharpe ’92, Heather Murbach ’99, Aaron Garner ’10, Isaac Carroll ’11, Josh Bateman ’12, and Aaron Cochrane ’14 all participated, by far the largest group Pacific has sent to the championships.

At the event, many of the graduates won their first matches, although they did not place.

“It’s tough after a long day and a half of travel and jet lag, but it was very successful,” Steele said. “Individual players had a lot of fun and learned a lot of things.”

It was a significant event in Ireland, as the sport is successfully continuing to expand and gain exposure internationally.

Nationally however, handball is still pushing to get more attention and exposure. Steele took a trip to Ireland this past October to plan and discuss handball’s entry in the 2016 Olympic Games. He worked with representatives from various countries who have the same goal for the game.

“If the Olympic possibility doesn’t get people’s attention, I don’t know what will,” he said. “I’m really pleased; I think we made good progress to get Olympic recognition for 2016. It will be in the world games in Cali, Columbia, an important step towards the Olympics.”

In the meantime, Boxer handballers are hard at work: They practice regularly Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. Steele’s son, Matt, who won the 2011 State Open Singles title, also coaches.

With tremendous Boxer participation in the World Handball Championships this year and the long trek toward Olympic recognition for the sport well underway, handball seems to hold a solid standing in the world of sports.

“I deeply appreciate the support the school has given us over the years. It wouldn’t be possible without all the support. It’s been almost ideal,” Steele said. “Alums stay in touch with the game and are still playing so I’m very happy with that.”