Marilyn Elder (13) and the U.S. Women enjoyed their first win of the tournament on Monday.
By: Dave Gascon
USA Team Handball Director of High Performance
HAVANA, Cuba – It took a while to finally get into the win column for the USA Women’s National Team, and it didn’t come easy, but boy did it feel good. The USA struggled throughout the 2015 Pan Am Championships in Havana, Cuba.
They have played well at times and erratic far too often. The defense has generally been strong, but the offense has sputtered and disappeared at times. When they have led in contests, they have squandered those leads and lost. Monday, they played a game against Venezuela in which everything they’ve done correctly and incorrectly were apparent throughout the contest.
Ashley Van Ryn, recovering from a strained right shoulder, opened the game with a strong shot and optimism reigned supreme. The Venezuelans did not look sharp and there was a quick expectation that the Americans would rush into the lead and finally taste victory. Yet, after goals by Jennifer Fithian and Dez Nguyen, the offense went dormant. Venezuela surged into the lead and then stretched it over the exasperated U.S. Women.
Karoline Borg scored on a seven-meter shot, followed by a goal by Julia Taylor, and another Borg seven-meter goal ensured Team USA wasn’t going to be embarrassed, although they were down 10-6 with less than a minute to go in the half. Fortunately for the USA, they were able to spring Taylor on two consecutive fast breaks. Taylor converted both opportunities and the USA trailed 10-8 at halftime.
The second half opened sluggishly for the WNT, but significantly, the high scoring Kathy Darling fired in her first goal of the game, and Darling looked comfortable doing so. Right winger Liz Hartnett scored, followed by a couple of goals by Jennifer Fithian and the WNT stayed with reach of the Venezuelan WNT, although the lead did stretch to five goals approaching the midpoint of the half.
Although facing the largest deficit in the game, the Americans began to look much more comfortable on offense and the defense became tenacious. Goalkeeper Staci Self looked confident and shut down the Venezuelans on many good scoring opportunities. The Americans began to run with outstanding long passing by Self and Captain Sarah Gascon. Taylor was the beneficiary of the brilliant passes as she streaked up the court scoring four goals in the second half.
On a particularly spectacular play, Hartnett tipped a ball over to Gascon nearby, who then rifled a pass to Jence Rhoads about 20-meter in front of the goal. In short order Darling turned and hit a speedy Jennifer Farrar at the top right of the six-meter line where she scored to finally tie the game at 17.
The WNT again quickly surrendered a couple of goals, but in this game the American’s intensity never wavered down the stretch as they continued to score. Borg once again fired in a goal and the game was tied. When Taylor fired in a wing shot, followed by a goal from the right side by Darling, the Americans were ready to make a stand to preserve the lead.
Fithian used her body, and face, to stop an aggressive attack resulting in a miss but a retained possession by the Venezuelans. Gascon made a lightning quick move to her right and forced a charge and the Americans took possession. Fithian, struggling as a result her previous collision, went down to her knees in obvious distress. After struggling off the court, she was replaced by the always ready defensive specialist Tomuke Ebuwei.
Ebuwei quickly demonstrated her value by taking a tough charge, forcing a critical turnover with a minute to play. Although the Americans suffered two turnovers themselves in the last minute and a half, the Venezuelans were in real trouble being down by two with only 30 seconds to play. Trying desperately to find an opening in the defensive line, they tried to go over the middle against Ebuwei. The former Penn State volleyball star thrives on such challenges and she stuffed the shot completes off the left side of the court. Venezuela’s time and opportunities were up and the proud Americans finally celebrated a victory, 22-20.
Next up for the Americans is an early morning clash with Guatemala.
Final Score: USA – 22, VEN – 20