A Family Affair
This time around has been exceptionally different in many ways. This training camp is the first one in quite some time that both the Men's and Women’s teams are training at the same place at the same time, meaning both Jen and I are present. I think the last time this was the case was Lake Placid, NY, in preparation for the 2011 Pan Am Games. We did not have a kid then. We do now, and so Charlotte Mae has come along for the trip as well. “Charlie” a.k.a. “The Phenom” is our year and half old daughter who makes practices and film/tactic sessions very interesting.
We have been fortunate enough to find a place with a friend of a friend to stay with, as funding for this camp and Repêchage tournament was enough to cover travel expenses, but not lodging or food for the duration of the camp. Kathy Isaacson and her family have been gracious enough to let our little family stay in their apartment above the garage on their beautiful property in Opelika by the RTJ golf complex. Without the Isaacson’s generosity and set-up, this camp may not have been possible for both of us to attend. We are unbelievably grateful.
The USA Team Handball family now firmly established in Auburn has been awesome, especially in helping out with Charlie. Jen and Charlie drove down a week earlier than I, and without the help of the trainers, teammates, and many others, we would not have been able to participate in practices and everything else that goes along with a training camp without all the help of Charlie’s new friends. Both coaches have been extremely patient and understanding as well, letting Charlie partake in locker room discussions and allowing her to be around during practices and meetings.
Charlotte herself has been awesome. She hasn’t sniffed her normal bedtime in over two weeks, and her schedule is incredibly messed up, but she plows on, hanging out with all her new friends while mom and dad practice. She’s even taking up chasing down balls, helping the players roll and stretch and even gave Momma a game day shoulder massage to help loosen her up.
The challenge, as always, is to get everybody on the same page in a short amount of time. Integrating non-residency players and residency players in a few days has been challenging, but much easier than before when everybody was meeting up from different parts of the world. Having an established home, locker rooms, and a training program and schedule, has helped those of us who are not part of the Residency Program yet integrate ourselves quickly.
Alberta Team Handball (men) and the Puerto Rican Women’s Team were nice enough to come down and play friendlies to help us prepare. Our Women’s team played well, displaying multiple defenses and a potent offense, earning three victories and gaining confidence, while building good team chemistry. They averaged 30 goals a game for the series, and many of the newer additions gained critical on court experience.
On the men’s side, Alberta brought down a skilled team that played good handball. They challenged the U.S. Men’s Team in all three matches. The first match Friday night featured only Residency Program guys. It was a tight, back and forth match, until mid-way through the second half when Alberta put together an impressive run. The residency players responded with an aggressive 3-3 defense the last 10 minutes and fought their way back to tie the score as the game ended. The next two matches featured a mix of residency and National Team members, with everybody seeing ample time. The U.S. put together two decent performances and won both games somewhat comfortably, while trying out different combinations and defenses. We cannot thank Alberta enough for taking the time to come down and play three games in three days. The guys were awesome and gave us good game competition to build off of.
What is clearly apparent is the growth of the Residency Program in numbers, talent, athletes, and handball in general across the board. Half of the Men’s National Team (MNT) is composed of current residency players with many others just missing the cut. The residency guys are young and promising, an exciting mixture for the future of USA Team Handball.
1st Leg Prep
The week went by smoothly. It is so nice to have our own locker rooms, the availability to get into the beautiful weight facility reserved for Olympic sports on Auburn’s campus, classrooms for technical meetings and film, and of course the gym at Beard-Eaves. Everything we need to conduct a strong camp and get ready to go is readily available, allowing us to focus on handball. It was a good week for both sides filled with ample time on the court and in the classroom.
The nice thing about the Residency Program is the high level of athletes that are around. Everybody is at a different level of handball but just having over 25 guys and girls on both sides gives both teams ample players to train with and against. As the week wore on, both coach’s shortened the rosters and practices intensified. The practice Thursday night for the guys consisted of just the MNT that was suiting up on Saturday and it was crisp and focused. From what Jen said, the women’s intensity level was quite high as well all week. Both teams avoided serious injury throughout camp with the exception of Cat Graham on the Women’s side, who unfortunately tore her ACL. After two good weeks, both teams felt prepared for the 1st Leg matches on Saturday.
The growth of the sport and the support throughout Auburn is highly visible and continually growing. Signs around town promoted the sport and the home games. Many local businesses held fundraisers and donated both time and money through individual programs. It is exciting to see the local community buy in; hopefully this trend continues and more and more businesses and locals will be made aware and jump aboard.
The growth of the sport in the Auburn area was on display Saturday night in Beard-Eaves Coliseum. The crowd for both games was easily the largest either USA team has played in front of in the USA for many years. I personally had never played in front of a bigger or more enthusiastic crowd. The noise and excitement created by the fans was definitely an advantage and was a nice sight to see. We have to thank the Auburn/Opelika community and all the other handball fans that traveled from far and away to come out and support, including over 10 former handball and other Olympians.
The men started slow again, and found themselves in an early deficit, much like the last time we played Uruguay but not nearly as severe. We kept it close with our defense, Danny Caparelli coming up with a couple of huge saves to keep the score at 12-10 going into half. Switching to a 3-3 defense in the second half and playing more aggressively on the offensive end, we turned it around in the second half, winning the half 15-9 and giving ourselves a four goal advantage heading into the 2nd leg to be played outside of Montevideo on Saturday.
Our goalies were again top notch, allowing only 21 goals total. Danny controlled the pipes for the first 40 before Gabe Goodreau came in and secured the victory over the last 20 minutes. Gary Hines rebounded after a tough first half, playing more aggressively on the offensive end and firing in a few impressive goals. Chris Morgan came in and scored a few key goals from right back, but more importantly played stout defense in the two spot for a few possessions. Vlado Bicvic was a huge contributor on defense and offense in the second half as well; we will miss his presence in Uruguay.
The women’s game was exactly opposite. They started a tad slow but soon picked up the pace and dominated the first half. They were clearly the better team in the first half, displaying better athleticism and better handball. Unfortunately for them, it did not carry over into the second half and the women ended up down 5 at the buzzer, 30-25.
Jen, having driven down to Auburn with The Phenom, and I had to turn around and get the car and kid back to New Hampshire before heading down to Uruguay, so we took off Sunday after the women had film. It worked out quite well in that we have family in Augusta, GA, and Springfield, VA, that were willing to house and feed us on the trip back. We split the trip into three days and luckily didn’t hit much traffic, making the trip back in 20 hours of total drive time. We arrived back in NH Tuesday afternoon, giving us just enough time to unpack, do laundry, repack, get a little shut eye and hand off the kid to the in-laws (thank you so much!) before flying out of Boston to meet back up with the rest of our teams in Montevideo.
Getting to Montevideo is not easy as there are no direct flights seemingly from anywhere in the U.S. Most of the team spent 30+ hours in airports and on planes but shockingly, no luggage was lost and everybody arrived safely on time in Uruguay. The Uruguayans have put us up in the same hotel the men stayed at this past summer in Carrasco. The Cottage is incredibly nice, situated across a busy road from the beach. The food is tasty and abundant, and the rooms are clean. The water is full of pressure and hot and you can flush the TP. The Wi-Fi works and so does the TV. The weather is unbelievable, 85 and sunny during the day, cooling off to 60 at night.
2nd Leg Prep
Both teams will practice Friday night at the gym we play at tomorrow, which is an hour drive both ways. The men and women both concocted game plans in meetings today. The men plan on finishing what we started back in Auburn. The women know what they need to do and have the ability to get it done. Strong defense and an aggressive offense will be key to both teams winning and punching their ticket to the Pan American Games this summer in Toronto. The games will be live streamed (http://panamhandball.org/pathf/) for those that want to tune in.
You can follow Captain Fithian on Instagram at @jkfithian44