Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Waking Up When September Ends

On a wet and windy September afternoon, with temperatures dropping and the days getting shorter, the University College Cork Olympic Handball Club has begun its first steps towards another season in the Irish league. The four remaining members from last year’s team sit down with an iPod flickering images of the 2012 Olympic final. Next to it sit about three or four sheets of paper, probably one of the most important documents the team will have all season. They’re not league registration papers, or orders for new equipment; these sheets contain information far more valuable than any of these things, names.

Coach Carlo Hefner (Left) and Captain Harry Tracey (Right)

Due to the nature of the University setup, players come and go at a frightening rate. Player turnover is alarming; with perhaps one or two Cork natives providing continuity from the season previous. The rest of the side is made up of students visiting the college, primarily as part of the ERASMUS programme who stay for a maximum of nine months. This makes for a truly international team, which has both its perks and pitfalls; depending on how trips are organized for these visiting students, a team for Saturday’s game might be obliterated with players-cum-day trippers off taking in the scenery of the Cliffs of Moher or being entertained at Temple Bar.

On the flip side, the University nature of the team brings some hugely talented players who have come to Ireland not even realising they would get the chance to continue where they left off at their clubs. In the last few years ‘UCC OHC’ has welcomed a number of semi-professional players to their ranks, bolstering the first team, and also improving the native players’ skills.

What a difference a year makes: The team in 2012
The club has fallen at the final hurdle in the National Cup for the last two years. The national league meanwhile is somewhat of a sideshow for the team, whose visiting students have long gone home before the final playoffs in the middle of June, something that is hoped to be changed this coming season. Finishing second place in the Cup enabled UCC to qualify for the EHF Challenge Cup, despite being unable to compete due to the expenses required, made prohibitive by the lack of funding for a sport that doesn’t register in the Irish consciousness.

Despite this, the niche sport has grown in the country due to the hard work and dedication of a handful of individuals, who have endeavoured to not only strengthen but also expand the game on a countrywide level. They have seen the fruits of their labour flourish over the past few years, with new clubs sprouting up, as well as an establishment of a women’s national side.

And a year later in 2013, only three surviving from the first photo
As the lights of the gymnasium were turned on and the balls pumped up, the side began their first training session in a typically haphazard fashion. Semi-professional players lined up alongside native Irish who had never held a handball in their life as the troupe began their warm-up. There’s something heart-warming about this levelling of the playing field though; whatever reputation and ego a skilled player has made at home is left on the plane as they adapt to life where the word ‘handball’ is used to describe a totally different game altogether.

With the first training session over there is lots on the horizon: Long bus journeys around the country will be endured, games will be won and lost, and UCC will be hoping to finally take home glory this season. Whatever happens, the long list of names on the sheets at sign-up day shows the future is bright for Olympic Handball, not only in University College Cork, but Ireland as a whole.

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