Guillero Acevedo

American Handball Arrives at a Place Called Hope

When David Thompson, who was in goal that night down in Guatemala City for the United States men's handball team, surveyed the scene playing out in front of him, he didn't just see a collection of guys and stories that even the most imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter might have trouble dreaming up. He saw hope.

He saw a U.S. men's handball team qualify for the Pan American Games for the first time since 2003 by routing Guatemala, 38-24, in the second match of a two-match play-in series. The Americans had tied with Uruguay, 23-23, the night before.

"This was special," the 31-year-old Thompson said, and when he's not tending goal for the U.S. team he knows special when he sees it. He's a Methodist pastor.

The U.S. men were forced to the play-in option after losing another would-be qualification match in December to Canada; the U.S. women punched their Pan Am ticket by beating Canada at that December event.

Suddenly, there are stirrings at U.S. handball, which has always seemed like the one Olympic sport Americans should be great at -- a mix of, among other things, lacrosse and basketball -- but for a mixture of complex reasons has never been much of an item on the U.S. sports radar, not even the Olympic sports scene.

Candidly, the United States is not going to win an Olympic medal in 2012.

Scratch that. All things are possible. Minister Thompson knows this to be the truth.

But let's be practical. For the Americans, it would be enough just to qualify.

Handball is a big deal elsewhere, and particularly in Europe. If the U.S. men in particular had not made it at least to the Pan Am Games, another three or four years would have gone by with probably yet more struggles, operationally and financially.

That's why what happened in Guatemala City earlier this month is so significant.

Especially since the American men broke through without their star player, Adam El Zoghby. He tore his ACL in December, playing against Canada. El Zoghby, born in New York, played in 130 international matches from 2000 through 2008 for Egypt; in 2009, he decided to play for the Americans.

Without him, everyone else had to step up.

What a crew.

"For us," Thompson said, "it has been, well -- there's been a lot of change. The last time we were in the Pan Am Games was in 2003. There were all of three players in Guatemala who were on that team."

Those three:

The two goalies, Thompson and Danny Caparelli. And Gary Hines, consistently one of the team's leading scorers.

Because of the 23-23 tie with Uruguay, the Americans either had to beat Guatemala by nine goals or win by eight and score more than 21. Uruguay had defeated Guatemala 20-12 in their first match.

Hines scored seven.

As he looked out from goal, Thompson could see the 22-year-old guy who had once played on a first-division team from Argentina and who, as things had turned out, had come with his brother to Park City, Utah, to work at a ski resort on his summer break. Guillermo Acevedo scored twice that night.

Here, too, was the 18-year-old from Germany who was born in Kentucky who speaks maybe not such great English but was running the offense from the start of the game like a veteran. "I'm a really proud mom, proud he has the opportunity to be a part of the USA team handball team," Mike Williams' mother, Ceyda, said.

Here, too, was the guy who was born and raised in Sweden who now lives in Norway and works the graveyard shift doing finance work so he can play handball during the days; he scored 11 that night. Martin Clemons Axelsson, whose father is from West Virginia, said, "I can just say from my 22 years playing handball … this was one of the highlights of my career, definitely."

Thompson, incidentally, who usually backs up Caparelli, got the start against Guatemala. By all accounts, he put on a goal-tending clinic.

The obvious way into the Olympics would be for the Americans to win the Pan Ams, in October in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Steady, now. The Americans have to prove they can beat not only Canada but, especially, Argentina.

In the rounds at the 2011 world championships, Argentina defeated Sweden; the Swedes went on to finish fourth. France won the worlds; earlier this month, in an international friendly, the French beat the Argentinians by only five, 35-30.

The 2003 U.S. Pan Ams team finished third. If the 2011 U.S. edition were to finish as high as second or third, there's yet another potential way into the Olympics -- a qualifying tourney next spring in Europe.

"There's definitely hope," Thompson said, and for the American handball program that is absolutely notable. "I think that's what we have. We have hope."