(L): Gary Hines guards the goal against Canada on Aug. 2, 2018 in Auburn, Ala. (R): Nicole Andersen competes against Canada on Aug. 2, 2018 in Auburn, Ala.
Ty Reed is a former University of Alabama quarterback who is now taking a shot at team handball.
Aboubakar Fofana, a club player in Europe, is playing in the U.S. for the first time in seven years.
Nicole Andersen, who has played handball since she was 5 years old and joined USA Team Handball in 2014, has played in Denmark for years.
Sarah Gascon has been with USA Team Handball since 2005 and played at the 2011 Pan American Games.
Combined, they are among the athletes who are trying to get the men’s and women’s national handball teams headed in the direction of playing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Both teams took big steps Sunday at Auburn University in Alabama, when they defeated their Canadian men’s and women’s counterparts in the first leg of the Pan American Games Qualifier as chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” echoed around the arena.
Round 2 arrives Wednesday in Montreal, when a pair of wins would clinch berths for the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Considering the U.S. hasn’t qualified for the Pan Am Games in team handball since 2011, and that neither team has played in the Olympics since qualifying as hosts in 1996, this will be a big night for the rapidly rising U.S. program.
“I think it’ll be a good atmosphere and is an important environment for all of our players to experience, even with Canada as the favorite,” said U.S. men’s coach Robert Hedin, who joined the program in July. “I think we will rise to the occasion.”
The women’s game is set for a 7 p.m. ET start Wednesday at the Claude-Robillard Sports Complex in Montreal, followed by the men’s match at 9 p.m.
“We all know that we are at halftime and trying not to be overconfident,” said U.S. women’s coach Christian Latulippe. “We have to be ready to play a very big game on Wednesday. I expect a huge fight, especially defensively. Both teams entered in the event ready to fight for every inch.
“But we have the resources to play a big game and we are united towards our goal. It is time to raise our game to another level.”
The winning teams at the 2019 Pan Am Games clinch berths at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The second-place teams are guaranteed to go to an Olympic qualification tournament.
“I was impressed on how well we played,” said Hedin, himself a two-time Olympic silver medalist with Sweden, “and if we play the same this Wednesday, it will be possible to beat Canada one more time.”
The men completed a U.S. sweep Sunday. Playing in the earlier game, the U.S. women also won, defeating Canada 22-20 to gain a two-goal advantage heading to Montreal. Andersen scored eight goals in that game, and Kathy Darling and Jence Rhoads each scored four times.
After winning by a clean dozen goals Sunday, the U.S. men don’t even have to win Wednesday in order to clinch the Pan Am Games berth. The two-game qualifying series is decided by aggregate goals, meaning Canada must outscore the U.S. men by 12 goals on Wednesday just to force a tie.
If Canada wins by 13 goals, it moves on to the Pan Am Games.
If Canada wins by 11, the U.S. still goes.
Not that Hedin is hoping anything like that happens.
“We will try to continue to do what worked well for our team, but the Canadians may come at us with different defenses or try to take two men out,” Hedin said. “We will prepare for different solutions.”
The women face a tighter task Wednesday. With a two-goal lead in goals, they could still lose by one and win the series. If Canada wins by two, then the series goes to a complicated tiebreaker format that could include two 5-minute overtime periods.
If there is a tie in total goals over two matches, then the team with the most goals scored on the road would be declared the winner. Since Canada scored 20 times Sunday, then the U.S. is shooting for 21.
Now, if Canada wins 22-20 on Wednesday, which is the same score the U.S. won by Sunday, then two overtime periods would be played. If the game is still tied after that, it would go to a soccer-like shootout with penalty shots, five shots for each team, to start out.
“The Canadians will be at home in front of a sellout crowd. It will be noisy and intense,” Latulippe said. “So it won’t be difficult to get motivated for this one. We are preparing ourselves very seriously and the players are engaged in the process.”
The losing teams of the qualifying series still have another shot at qualifying for the Pan Am Games through the second-chance tournament that the U.S. teams are all too familiar with.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is sports editor of the Cape Cod Times and a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.