Feb 25, 2022 - Sports

Deep dive: Columbus Armada putting Ohio on the handball map

Illustration of the Ohio flag with a hand ball in the circle.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

With each goal from the Columbus Armada came loud cries from announcer Doug Lemcool: "Fire!" "Bang!" "Splashdown!"

  • "This," he told viewers with only a hint of melodrama, "is the action handball fans can only dream of."

State of play: The team's Feb. 13 season opener marked a turning point for the Armada, now in its sixth season slinging goals.

Why it matters: The semi-pro franchise is charting new ground in a sport gaining more traction after every Summer Olympics, , when handball makes a rare appearance in the sports spotlight.

  • Along with a top-ranked Ohio State club team, the Armada are putting Columbus on the handball map.

The intrigue: The Armada are among nearly four-dozen teams involved with USA Team Handball, the sport's governing body.

  • Many teams play exclusively in tournaments held in places like Illinois, Florida and California.
  • The Armada are experimenting with an independent regular season schedule dubbed the "Columbus Challenge Cup," where they will host local matches against the likes of Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

What they're saying: Though the Columbus Challenge Cup may not be associated with USA Team Handball, the organization's CEO applauds the undertaking.

  • "(A)ny efforts to grow the game in the U.S. and provide more opportunities for athletes to compete in the sport of handball is a win," Ryan Johnson tells Axios in an email.
  • "We're very excited to see how the series works."
A handball player jumps into a throw on net.
Alex Recker of the Armada jumps into a shot on net. Recker formerly played for the U.S. men's national team. Game photos courtesy the Columbus Armada.

Between the lines: A full schedule gives the team more experience and allows Ohioans to see the sport up-close, team owner Max Littman tells Axios.

  • "The tournament model is super inaccessible for fans," says Littman, who plays right wing.
  • More games also means an opportunity to climb the national rankings.

First things first, the Armada had to take care of business against its sister club, the Dublin Lucks, in the first doubleheader.

  • The plucky Lucks kept things close in the first game before Columbus pulled away late for a 37-29 victory in game one, then a 41-29 win in game two.
A handball player jumps to shoot, while defenders wrap him up in a bear hug.
It's common for aggressive defenders to wrap up would-be attackers in bear hugs to prevent them from taking an open shot.

The basics of handball

How it works: Handball traditionally features six players to a side, plus goalkeepers, within a basketball court-sized boundary.

  • The game centers on ball movement. You can dribble and even run while carrying the ball, but only for three steps — forcing a quick pass or shot.

Also important is the six-meter goal area line, known simply as "the six."

  • Only the goalkeeper is allowed within this arc.

Meanwhile, defenses guard that line ruthlessly and do whatever it takes to prevent open shots on goal — even bear-hugging those with the ball.

  • Impeding a shot in progress, however, leads to a foul being called.

The bottom line: It takes skill and team chemistry to score against a well-positioned defense, but fast breaks can come in handy.

  • Teams often capitalize off of opponents' turnovers and missed shots by quickly passing the ball up court before a defense can get back.

A star at goalkeeper

Armada co-owner and goalkeeper J.D. Orr has perhaps the most noteworthy pedigree of any handball player in Ohio.

Flashback: As a student at Ohio State, he was inspired by the 2012 Olympic games to start a club team on campus.

  • He continues to serve as its head coach nearly a decade later.
A handball player gears up for a penalty shot on net.
Orr has separately competed and coached for the Junior U.S. National Team and now serves as general membership director for USA Team Handball.

State of play: The Buckeyes are a collegiate powerhouse, ranked third in the nation, and are No. 12 among all U.S. teams, including semi-pro outfits.

The big picture: Orr and other Buckeye graduates went on to form an OSU alumni team, which rebranded as the Columbus Armada in 2017.

What they're saying: OSU's team has become a talent pipeline, Orr says proudly.

  • He also credits handball as being a "very culturally diverse game," with Armada players hailing from Iceland and France.

Giving handball a try

🖐 Tyler here. I joined the Armada for practice and learned first-hand how tough handball really is.

We began with simple throwing practice, no easy task for someone who's never held a handball before.

Next, we lined up for a series of practice shots.

  • Good players have all sorts of tricks to deceive a goalie. They mix up their arm angles, shot speeds and net placement while adding in a variety of jumps, spins and fakes.
  • I had none of that. My strategy was just to run up to the line and chuck the ball.
Axios Columbus writer Tyler Buchanan fires a handball at the net.
Tyler fires a shot at the net. A handball is heavier than you expect, and the proper footwork for throwing one is tricky as well. Photo by Max Littman.

Worse yet was my attempt at goalkeeping.

  • It is positively frightening to defend shots coming directly toward you, and I had no prayer at guarding the corners of the 10-foot-wide net.

We wrapped up practice with scrimmages that offered some real handball game action.

  • I came in hoping my years of experience playing pick-up basketball would help, but if anything, it was actually a major hindrance.
  • I couldn't just run and get "open." Player movement is limited by the six line, so the game revolves mainly around spacing and passing.

In about 30 minutes of play, I somehow recorded two goals and a handful of assists.

  • We finished with arms together and Orr shouting, "Fire the cannon!," to which we replied in traditional Armada fashion, "Boom!"

My take: Handball is definitely harder to play than it looks, but maybe with more practice I could start to hold my own in future playing opportunities.

The intrigue: The Armada's practice home at Thompson Community Center happens to be the home gym for boxing legend James "Buster" Douglas.

  • We watched him coach a younger boxer as we departed.

Catch a game, or play yourself

The Columbus Armada handball club logo, with a ship and an outline of a player throwing a ball.
The Columbus Armada plays its games at Westwood Field House (3932 Brown Park Drive, Hilliard).

The Armada return to action Sunday in a Buckeye State matchup against Cincinnati.

  • The doubleheader includes tip-offs at noon and 1:40 p.m.
  • Tickets are $15 at the door and includes both games.

If you're interested in giving handball a try, the team's weekly practices usually serve as open gyms to the public.


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