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Boxer handballers rack up national titles

Four players combine for three championships at college tournament

When Mike Steele recruits players for his two-time national championship Pacific handball team, he doesn’t look for any one particular skill. He simply looks for students with natural athleticism and a willingness to try something new.COURTESY PHOTO: 
 - Pacific club handball coach Mike Steele (center) got to watch players Becca Brown (from left) Melissa Lund, Angel Marquez and Ben Schmid earn national titles last month at the U.S. Handball Association National Collegiate Championships in Portland.

He found exactly those traits in Becca Brown and Melissa Lund.

Brown, a Pacific senior who played high school softball just down the road at Gaston, and Lund, a senior swimmer and volleyball player for the Boxers, had no handball experience when they met Steele, but the skills they learned playing other sports made them a formidable handball duo.

Now, only a few months after first playing together, Brown and Lund can call themselves national champions.

That doubles tandem led a record-setting performance for Pacific at the 63rd annual United States Handball Association National Collegiate Championships, which the Boxers hosted in late February at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland.

Among the highlights for Pacific were Brown and Lund’s title in the Women’s A Doubles division, a Men’s A Doubles title for Angel Marquez and Ben Schmid, plus a Men’s B Singles title for Marquez.

Meanwhile, Teresa Wright and Julia Naumes finished second in the Women’s B Doubles division, Kerry Lee was the Women’s C Singles runner-up, and Kylie Martin was a Women’s C Singles semifinalist.

“We’ve never had more than three individuals win championships, and this year we had four individuals win titles and seven people receive some sort of award or scholarship,” said Steele, who has coached the Pacific handball team for 37 years. “It was very exciting.”

Pacific finished fourth overall out of 31 schools, compiling a 33-24 record in matches during the weekend-long event.

For Brown and Lund, it was an exciting conclusion to a season that happened mostly by chance.

Brown began playing handball — a sport that is similar to racquetball, only played with gloved hands instead of racquets — after taking a class as a freshman at Pacific, and she casually mentioned it to Lund in the fall. A few months later, Steele suggested that they start playing doubles together, and the rest is history.

“Becca brought in her doubles partner by mentioning it in a school meeting,” Steele said. “I didn’t know Melissa at all, but she took on the challenge of learning the sport and she turned out to be really gifted on the court.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Lund, who hails from Roseburg, was talented at swimming and volleyball, which approximated the overhand stroke in handball. As a former softball pitcher, Brown quickly took to mastering handball’s sidearm motion. And the fact that one partner is right-handed while the other is a lefty only made the two more perfect as a doubles tandem.

“Coming from a softball background, it was easy to pick up. The sport came pretty natural to me,” Brown said. “You may not be the best at it initially, but if you’re athletic you can usually pick it up pretty quickly.”

That has been Steele’s motto for years.

“We have a design — find a good athlete and teach them the sport, then turn them loose,” he said. “It’s easy to learn and hard to master. It’s a great sport, but it’s also a very demanding sport.”

Handball’s relative lack of mainstream popularity is a hindrance, but Steele and his players know it’s a game that can become a lifelong passion.

“We have marvelous athletes, but we are a niche sport — I know where handball stacks up in the pantheon of sports,” Steele said. “That’s the problem that we have to face, just getting new people interested in the sport.”

Brown made the decision four years ago to try something new, and now she has a national championship to show for it.

“My freshman year I decided to take a handball class,” she said. “I had no clue what it was. I just thought, ‘This sounds fun,’ and it turned out to be really enjoyable. I won’t stop playing when I graduate. This is a lifetime sport, and I think that’s the best thing about handball.”


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