UNC-Chapel hill students pride themselves on their knowledge of and passion for Tar Heel athletics. Carolina blue masses fill the stands at a variety of sporting events year-round, cheering on their Heels to victory after victory. However, there is one UNC-CH powerhouse in the midst of an unprecedented dynasty that is playing a sport many Carolina students may have never even heard of.
The women’s team handball club entered the 2011-2012 season searching for their fourth straight national championship, a feat that would be incredible under any circumstances but especially considering that the program is only entering its tenth year.
Head coach Wade Sutton certainly could not have expected this sort of success when, as a UNC-CH student and a member of the men’s club team, he helped found the women’s team handball club in 2002.
“I had been playing handball (at UNC-CH) for a couple years, and in the spring of 2002 a couple of the club basketball girls decided that they wanted to try it,” Sutton says. “Chris Graves, a teammate of mine, got them together and we took them to one tournament and they went to college nationals that year.”
Sutton continued to coach the club after graduating, but he faced many initial obstacles, including finding willing participants for the team.
“For probably like two years we only had two to four girls at each practice,” Sutton remembers.
The club was hindered by a general lack of knowledge about team handball in the United States, which enjoys much greater prominence in Europe.
Instead, team handball is played on a court slightly longer than a basketball gym and involves throwing a leather ball into a two-by-three-foot goal. Players can dribble, run and pass without entering a specified area surrounding the goal. O’Donnel feels that if more Americans were familiar with the nuances of the sport, they would enjoy team handball more.
“I think it incorporates so many different sports with the sport that a lot of people would actually really like it,” O’Donnel says. “It is kind of a mixture of lacrosse and soccer and basketball.”
Noting that handball is a team sport, O’Donnel also says that it has the potential for popularity in the United States.
“I think if people just gave it a chance, it could be really huge in the United States,” she explains. “It is the second most popular sport to soccer in Europe; people are crazy about it there. They start playing when they are five years old. And I think if we started incorporating it into high schools and middle schools here it could be really big.”
Because team handball is relatively unknown, most of Sutton’s recruits for UNC-CH’s team enter the sport with no prior experience or knowledge about the game.
“The problem is no one has ever heard of the sport,” Sutton says. “Even the really athletic girls, they come out and they’re used to being good at the sport they played, and their first practice they just don’t know what is going on. So it is hard to keep them interested and get them to come back and let them know they were actually doing well.”
Despite the difficulties presented by the obscurity of the sport, Sutton has managed to attract enough new members to the UNC-CH club sport to field two teams this year, each composed of 20 players. Sutton has drawn upon his own experience starting a handball career at the college level to help recruit players through Fall Fest and word of mouth.
“When I played at UNC-CH, it was a rough first couple practices for me because I did not know what I was doing. So I almost quit, but luckily (I) decided to stay on until the first tournament,” Sutton says. “And the first tournament was really fun. I played well; I got to start and got a lot of playing time. My third year playing here, I was invited to National Team camp and made the National Team, and so that of course helped.”
O’Donnel believes Sutton’s commitment to the team handball club has been essential to their success.
“(Sutton) has been coaching for as long as the club has been established, and he is really dedicated to the team,” she says.
Sutton credits a group of veteran players for developing within the program and taking the team to new heights. The current peak for the program was last year when Carolina won their third straight national championship after defeating rival West Point by only one goal. West Point is Carolina’s chief competition due to the limited number of women’s collegiate teams.“As far as men’s teams go there are a few different colleges, but for women’s (handball) it is basically just the UNC-CH team and the West Point, Army team,” O’Donnel says. “And the rest of the teams we play against are club sports from cities, like New York City, Boston and Chicago but those are all usually European women who have come over to the United States and started their own clubs. So it is fun to play against them but the major reason we have such a rivalry with Army is because we are the two actual college teams in the women’s game and we’re always trying to one up each other.”
The women’s team has won the college national championship the past three years in a row, in addition to several other tournaments.
“We’ve won both of our tournaments here and we’ve won West Point’s tournament and pretty much most of the tournaments we’ve been to except Open Nationals, which is where anyone can play, so there is a lot of really veteran teams there with a lot of foreign players,” Sutton says. “But this last year, we actually made the medal round for the second time in our history.”
O’Donnel echoes her coach’s statements concerning the experienced group that she and president Liz Simms have been a part of since their freshman year.
“We have a really great group of girls. Four or five of the girls I started out with my freshman year playing with the club have stuck with it,” O’Donnel shares. “I think it just really shows that people want to be part of the club, and it’s not just about going to practice. It’s about the camaraderie that we have with each other.”
The team’s quest for a fourth collegiate national championship is well underway as the team prepares to host their spring tournament in Fetzer Gymnasium, after winning the Tar Heel Tournament there during the fall semester. And the club has been successful away from home as well; they have suffered only one loss so far this season.
The Tar Heels’ success has drawn support from USA Team Handball, the national organization that has even hosted Olympic team handball tryouts in Fetzer Gymnasium.
“Several of our girls have made the National Team pool or played on the National team,” Sutton says. “It is really rare where someone can play a sport for two to three years and then make a national team.”
Sutton and the rest of the girls continue to recruit new athletes for the handball club, as they search for the next generation of Carolina champions.
“We have a really good core group of players, but the problem is they are all about to graduate. So we need to recruit some more freshmen,” Sutton says. “A lot of the girls now started when they were freshmen and sophomores, and it makes a big difference. It really is about the third year where they really just get it.”
Sutton’s current group certainly has ‘gotten it,’ and although it might not become one of the more well-known teams on Chapel Hill’s campus, the women’s team handball club will continue to work to be one of its most successful.