With UR Handball, a Three-Player Culture Spawns a National Winner

Univ. Communications – Despite its Division III status in most mainstream sports, the University of Rochester is host to a fair share of very successful off-beat athletes. You may have heard of our mighty squash players, fierce men’s rugby, highly-ranked quidditch team, and champion downhill skiers. To that list you can also add a couple of the world’s best handball players. On the weekend of February 24, Brandon Manrique ’12 won the third-highest bracket of the national collegiate handball championship.

While handball has never been recognized as a varsity sport on campus, several years ago two graduate students, Samantha England and Dan McNabney, channeled their love of the game and their organizational skills to create a club team. Both had played handball for years and wanted to introduce the Rochester community to the sport as well as find new opportunities to train. England has been ranked the third best female player in the world.

They vigorously recruited students and at one point the club had as many as fifteen members. Manrique, a philosophy and economics major, began playing handball when he arrived here as a freshman. However, new rules for club sports required that the student organizations be sustained solely through the recruitment and organizational efforts of undergraduate students. The new rules, combined with the annual graduation of several team members, made it difficult for the club to grow and today Rochester’s handball culture is down to three people: Manrique, England, and McNabney.

To add to these organizational challenges, there is the sheer difficulty of the game. “It’s such a hard learning curve,” said Manrique. “When you step on the court you have to not only be proficient at hand-eye coordination, you have to be proficient at hand-eye coordination with both of your hands, which is extremely tough.”

The game is played with a small, dense rubber ball and special gloves on a racket ball court.  After their first try players can expect to walk away with very sore hands and full-body fatigue. “Once you get past that, it’s just fun,” Manrique insisted. “It’s probably one of the best workouts you can get.”

But it’s not just about bouncing a ball off the walls of an enclosed court. Handball also is a strategic mental game.  “It’s like a game of chess once you really get into it,” said England.

“No matter how good you get at the game physically there’s always going to be some other challenge.”

Since his freshman year Manrique has risen to high ranks in local and national handball tournaments. “He’s in the top bracket right now for local tournaments and he’s only been playing for three and a half years which is unheard of because handball is so difficult,” said England.  She attributes his success to a keen ability to absorb new information and stay calm on the court.  “He’s really improved exponentially because of his ability to adapt to the game. He learns so quickly and implements the new information … He’s the ideal handball player.”

“I felt very calm and prepared. I have the best coaches that have prepared me for any obstacles that I could possibly come across, both mentally and physically,” Manrique said of his recent Division 1B bracket win. “This was easily the biggest athletic achievement of my entire life.”

“I think that he would be able to enter the pro circuit if he wanted to,” said England. “I look forward to reading his name on the Internet and in the handball publications about how well he’s doing.”  Expressing hope that Manrique will continue to play and teach handball to others after leaving Rochester, she added, “I feel happy that the handball community has gained another player like Brandon.”

Above all, it is the community aspect of the game that both Manrique and England find so attractive. While working in Sacramento, Calif., last summer, Manrique was able to quickly find new friends by joining handball clubs. As the only representative of the University it can be tough to travel to competitions without a team to support him, but while at the national tournament Manrique was cheered on by members of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities team, who knew him from the previous year. The game is also accessible to people of all ages which makes for an inclusive environment despite the competition.

“I am always going to be playing handball, there’s no doubt about that,” Manrique said. “It’s all about finding the right community of players. I still have a lot to learn so I’ll take advantage of my coaches here in Rochester while I can. After that, wherever I end up after graduation, I’ll just take it from there.”

Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia (www.out-of-russia.com) and the other to photography (www.myorientalism.com).


Top Photo: Brandon Manrique competes in National Handball Collegiate Championship.

Second Photo: Brandon Manrique poses with Dan Sterrett of Lake Forest College, after the final match of the National Handball Collegiate Championship. Manrique defeated Sterett for the Division 1B title. All photos courtesy of the US Handball Association.