The goal was clear and both the players and staff all signed off on it in August when they kicked-off the season. The objective was to nothing less than to reach the semifinals at Nationals, and who knows, maybe bring a medal on top of it.
Quite a bit of sweat (but no tears) went into it. The first three weeks of the season were all about physical conditioning, and no one ever saw a ball (except a medicine ball or a slam ball). It did not really matter anyway because no need of a handball when you complete 400m intervals on the track.
After working its way through qualifying tournaments in Chicago (4th), Dallas (2nd), Calcup (3rd) and winning the West Coast tourney in Phoenix, the team was ready to step onto the largest handball stage in the US, the US Nationals in Myrtle Beach.
The round robin had us matched against an old but known rival Chicago Inter and the team delivered probably its most accomplished game of the season to defeat a team that had caused us many problems throughout the qualifying season (3 defeats, but most recently with a narrow margin (+2 in Dallas and +1 at CalCup in San Francisco). After perfectly controlling the game for the whole 60 min, SF CalHeat brought a solid 33 – 24 win home and had started its tournament the best possible way.
The confidence that was built against Chicago Inter was not going to be a minor thing as the team got ready to face the 2017 Reigning Champion, New York City. After closing the first half only 2 goals down, the team could not resist the second half acceleration of New York City and paid cash the very few mistakes it made. Final score ended up being 18-26 and, just like it had been anticipated, it would all come down to our last game against Army West Point Black.
If you have never seen the West Point team play, think of it as the fittest team on planet USA Handball. One where the players may lack on handball skills and experience but compensate by their youth (no player is older than 23), their grit and impeccable physical condition. Whenever you play them you know two things for sure: every turnover will cost you and these guys will fight until the horn blows, no matter the lead you may have.
After controlling the game for 50mn and being up +6, the Californians started turning the ball over and, as expected, paid for it cash. The hard-built cushion melted away in less than 6mn and the last minutes of the game were a suffocating mano a mano that eventually saw SF CalHeat prevail thanks to a 10m shot by Lars Schorlemer. The 29-28 win catapulted the team to semifinals and although the main goal of the season had been reached, the whole group wanted more as it was now time to take on New York Athletic Club (NYAC), a team that had beaten us fair and square in Chicago (-7 defeat in October).
Just like against West Point, SF CalHeat took an early lead and was playing smart and effective handball. Patient in offense and disciplined in defense, the team could count on its outstanding goalkeeper [Frederik Jakobsen] who was nothing short of brilliant in his goal. But after building a solid lead [+6], the defense got less mobile, lost concentration, and the offense got less inspired and efficient. SF CalHeat could not close the game with a double power play and with NYAC’s Dani Caparelli goalie out. The opportunity to kill the game was gone and NYAC was back on track. The regulation ended on a draw and the overtime was an intense punch-for punch boxing match. Down 1 with only a few seconds to play, CalHeat tied it with an extraterrestrial goal by Zuwed Akuro. The game moved to the penalty shootout session, and Frederik Jakobsen became its hero. As he stopped the first NYAC shot and all the other shooters scored, he sent SF CalHeat to the US National Elite final. This was the team’s first final since 1990, something no one expected in and outside the club.
The final would be the second match up against New York City. But this time around, NYC made sure to not let this be a close game. The big apple well-oiled machine, led by several former pro players from Europe and Egypt, was executing at a different level than what they proposed in the round robin. A couple of missed shots in offense and a lack of aggressiveness in defense (both probably due to the accumulation of games over the weekend) gave NYC an early but very comfortable lead in the game and the opportunity to control this final until its end. SF CalHeat closed its season on a 31-18 defeat but the smiles during the long awaited medal ceremony said a lot about what the team had achieved. They also qualified for the continental club championship (Club Panams or NORCA, to be determined) as the runner-up of the tournament. SF CalHeat will be back next season to consolidate it place as a leading team in the US and work harder to bring another medal in the Bay Area. Which metal you ask? Well, let us think about our goals and let’s talk it more in May 2019 for the next US Nationals. #GoCalHeat!!!