The story of the rise of handball at York is certainly an intriguing one. Despite the club forming merely a year ago, it has already enjoyed great success which culminated in victory during last year’s Roses, ultimately garnering a new found love for a relatively unknown sport. Perhaps this is a harsh assumption, yet the lack of a handball club on Club President, Chrysanthi Stefanou’s arrival at York was an issue she immediately sought to address.
“I have played handball since a young age, when I came to York I saw there weren’t any teams so I decided to set one up with the help of some friends. Apparently they had tried to set one up before but there wasn’t the demand. We did all the paperwork and we were soon ready for the Freshers Fair.”
Stefanou’s first task was to tackle the significant lack of demand that had prevented its earlier formation attempt. Luckily, she was able to call upon her friends and soon fellow President Matt Littlechild was introduced to the sport.
“I was Chrysanthi’s housemate in first year, she wanted her friends to support her and a lot of us went along and I loved it. I was aware of handball but I had never seen it played. I loved it and never looked back.”
What ensued was a remarkable year for the Handball Club. Their first friendly fixture involved local opponents Leeds whereby both the men’s and mixed teams won their respective matches. York therefore drew a significant degree of confidence from such results, as they entered their first competitive fixture against Lancaster during the Roses tournament last year. Again, both York’s men’s and women’s teams were victorious which led to the clubs nomination as most improved sports club at the University of York. The result of such success further helped to raise the sport’s profile, capturing even greater support. There is a sense that such popularity has continued to grow and this year proves to be even more fruitful. Certainly, Littlechild is eager to point out the promising levels of participation at the start of this term.
“The first couple of weeks were really positive. There are definitely a lot of committed people and what is really positive is that there are a lot more girls. For example last year, we didn’t have enough for a ladies team and we were forced into fielding a male goalkeeper. This year it is going to be great to field a proper team.”
Many people are unfamiliar with the sport and as such may dismiss handball on the grounds that it doesn’t hold the same glamour of more established alternatives. Having only experienced Handball for a year, I was interested to see what Littlechild’s initial impressions were regarding the sport.
“It is a very fast paced and physical so there is a lot of contact,” he replies. “It is similar to basketball in a sense but a lot more structured in terms of attacking and defending. My initial reaction was that I was surprised by the physicality, it is not uncommon to be wiped out on the floor. When we first started we had some experienced players so the speed was definitely noticeable.”
Stefanou adds that, “It is a combination of basketball and futsal, we play with futsal goals but instead we obviously use our hands. Anyone can play as there are six different positions, all of which require different types of people.”
Handball has been persistently omitted from BUCS domestic competition calendar, regardless of the inclusion of other alternative sports. I therefore ask Stefanou why this was the case.
“Last year they were trying to get handball into BUCS but apparently there is not enough interest. Instead, we are competing in a one day tournament. All the handball teams are on a Facebook group for friendly one-day tournaments. Also, due to the Roses ruling that new sports must be trialled a year before, this time we are competing for points so there is a lot of pressure on us to perform. Roses 2014 was really important for us, lots of people turned up to support our teams and people signed up as a direct result of our performance.”
I ask Littlechild what the club’s main objectives were for the season ahead. He says, “We would really like to win Roses again but also, we would like to ensure the future of the club. Chrysanthi is graduating, as are most of the team, so we are trying to focus our attention on there being a club next year and ensuring there are enough people to play.”
Speaking to both presidents, I feel they hold a sense of pride in their achievements which is certainly warranted. Having formed the club from scratch, the onus is now on others to ensure the club continues to develop and maintain its high standards for years to come. Both Presidents have formed strong foundations from which the club can thrive, with the sports accessibility and limited playing costs further acting to entice beginners. Stefanou highlights the opportunity available to first years looking to take part in handball.
“We need first years and second years to take over the team,” says Stefanou. The beginners from last year made huge progress and I now believe they can be classified as experienced. We spent all our money last year to get the balls as we needed ten for men and ten for women due to the different sizes. The only real equipment is the balls and therefore it is not expensive so anyone can just come and join.”
While the sport itself is naturally the central concentration, Littlechild is quick to highlight that the club offers a welcoming social element which enables the creation of lasting friendships.
“Another positive thing about the club is how friendly it is. Everyone is in the same boat and there is a really good atmosphere at training and socially. Everybody helps out so there is a community spirit and because everyone is new it creates a better atmosphere for learning.”
Handball at York certainly seems to be headed in the right direction. With this year expected to even surpass last year’s achievements, the sky’s the limit for Stefanou and Littlechild. With the steady influx of new participants the club can continue to flourish with all the thrills and spills surrounded by a warm sociable environment, ensuring enjoyment for one and all. With York Handball once again poised to take victory on home soil in next year’s Roses tournament, it is certainly an exciting time for the sport and one not to be missed.