By Brendan Rourke | July 30, 2019, 11:45 p.m. (ET)

Sarah Gascon competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on July 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

LIMA, PERU – It has been eight years since U.S. women’s handball team has made an appearance at the Pan American Games. The team has traveled across the globe in the past year, playing more world competition than ever in an attempt to revitalize an underappreciated sport. The increase in hard work and competition is beginning to pay dividends. The inspired women walked away with a fourth-place finish at the 2019 Pan American Games at Videna National Sports Village. 

The team lost to Cuba, 24–23 in the bronze medal match. With less than 17 minutes left in regulation, the U.S entered a decisive stretch in which the team was outscored 4-0 over a span of 5:50. Cuba’s lead stretched to 22-18 before U.S. team captain Sarah Gascon ended the drought. 

The U.S. managed to hold Cuba to two goals in the last four minutes of play. With less than a minute to go, Elizabeth Hartnett and Julia Taylor scored back-to-back goals to bring the U.S. within one at 24-23. A last-second steal by Taylor provided one last hope, but a final heave from mid-court by Nicole Anderson went high and to the right.

“It’s absolutely exciting,” Andersen said, who had eight goals to lead the U.S. “I’m 13 years into my career with the team, and I couldn’t be more proud of these girls and the strides we’ve made over the past couple of years.”

Center back Jence Rhoads scored four goals. 

“It stings right now,” she said. “But I think maybe in a few days, a few weeks, we’ll look back on it and realize it was a huge accomplishment for our team.” 

Rhoads is a former all-Southeastern Conference basketball point guard at Vanderbilt. She has been playing handball for just five years.

Gascon, who has been with the team since 2005, spoke of the dramatic progress she has seen. 

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 “We were dead last in 2011,” she said. “The fact that we came back, we qualified, and then we came in the top four, that’s remarkable. Eight years ago, they would’ve blown us out of the water by 10 or 20 goals, and now we’re right there.”  

The U.S found a way to claw back within one point at the end of the first half. Early on, the team struggled to contain Cuba’s Lisandra Lusson, whose three goals helped build a 5-2 lead. That’s when U.S. coach Christian Latulippe called a timeout.

After the timeout, a Cuban player threw a misguided pass, and Gascon found Ashley Butler streaking down the right side for a wide-open shot. The shot eluded the outstretched right hand of Cuban goaltender Indiana Cedeno to tie the score, 9–9. Later, the U.S. climbed out of a 12–10 hole after goalkeeper Sophie Fasold saved shots on consecutive Cuban possessions. Andersen and Maria Vallone fired shots past Cedeno to tie the score, 12-12. A penalty shot by Lusson put Cuba ahead 13–12 as the first-half time expired.

The U.S. broke through for its first lead in the second half.  With chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A,” coming from the crowd, there were three consecutive goals in a span of 2:28, two coming from Butler. Her goal at 43:06 gave the U.S. an 18–17 lead.

The team bounced back from a 26–15 preliminary round loss to Argentina to win two straight games against the Dominican Republic and Peru to finish pool play. The 2–1 record earned the team a spot in the semifinals against top-ranked Brazil. The more-experienced Brazil squad defeated the U.S 34–9, dropping the U.S. into the bronze medal game. 

Still, the squad left the court feeling proud of what had been accomplished here and in other tournaments to advance the sport of handball in the U.S.

“We did this without really a lot of funding,” said Gascon. “Us, as athletes, have to fund raise everything. So, all of our European trips, and all of our international competitions we’ve had to raise money for.  We’ve made a lot of progress in the past eight years to get to this point, and the fact that we were able to hang with Cuba like that is pretty remarkable.”

Anderson agreed. 

“This tournament is absolutely a great next step for us,” she said. “We really wanted that bronze to show what we were capable of. We have to regroup, and we have to figure out how we can grow the sport. We need a bigger pool of women athletes coming into the program.”

The women and men team will compete at the 2019 International Handball Federation Super Globe World Cup Championships in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.