Since the Olympics, the nation’s interest in handball has dramatically increased. Formerly the sport most people in Britain had not heard of and even less people actually knew what it was, Handball was thrown onto the country’s screens with an amazing response. Loughborough Students Handball is just one of the many clubs that is reaping the benefits of this response having to hold trials for the first time ever because the club was so oversubscribed.
The University Championships are the biggest date on the calendar for any university handball club in the country. Past years have seen a good turn out from teams across Britain but this year saw an increase no one expected. 690 players were registered to play in the championships, making it by far the largest handball competition the country had ever seen.
On February 2nd, 32 students from Loughborough boarded a bus and headed to Dagenham to participate. With so many new teams only formed this year it was hard to know what to expect, and with both men’s and the women’s team losing the majority of their players from last year, with the first team only retaining a single member of last year’s squad, expectations were modest, teams decided their own targets, which were mainly to improve on last year.
Last Saturday saw the first round of the group stages of the competition. All three teams were unlucky to draw tough opponents in their groups but stepped up the mark and performed admirably, notably; the women’s team winning three out of five matches and beating one of the strongest teams from last year, and who were also unlucky to not qualify after three teams finished on the same points for second place.
The men’s second team took on and defeated Bolton’s first team. As a predominately British club where the majority of the players only have a few years’ experience, wins against clubs with predominately European and Scandinavian players who have been playing since school age shows just how far Loughborough have come in such a short space of time.
Day two saw the positional matches for the men’s second and women’s teams and the next round of group stages for Loughborough men’s first team. The girls fought hard against incredibly tough opponents, winning one of their three matches. Special mention has to go to Beth Gregory for a last second penalty save that won Loughborough the match against Bangor University.
The men’s second team also pulled off a fantastic 3-0 win against Bedford University and were unlucky not to beat Liverpool. Attention turned to the Loughborough men’s first team who drew what seemed to be an impossibly hard group to qualify for the quarterfinals. Facing Leeds Met firsts, they pulled off a fantastic 8-3 win and then came across arguably their hardest competition of the day. AECC, last year’s second place team, had qualified top of their group and appeared unstoppable. Loughborough put up a fight leading for most of the way through, with a fantastic performance from the entire team, notably from Sébastien Reboah who fired goals past their incredibly experienced goalkeeper.
AECC stole the lead in the last few minutes and made it 4-3, as the whistle blew Loughborough rocketed in a goal however it was deemed to be after whistle. Many spectators deemed the Loughborough versus AECC match the best performance they had seen so far that weekend.
With a hard fought win against Brighton in their last match, Loughborough qualified for the quarterfinals second in their group. With a quick turnaround, Loughborough went into a match against a very experienced imperial team. Imperial quickly targeted Seb Reboah who scored over 50% of Loughborough’s goals that weekend making it difficult for him to score, but Loughborough proved they weren’t a one man team with goals getting fired in from around the court. Loughborough led throughout the majority of the match but Imperial pulled it back and won 12-13.
A hard fought match saw Loughborough out of the competition. Captain Dan Odlin spoke of his pride of the team: “To lead Loughborough handball to their best ever finish at the University Championships is a proud moment for both me and the team. The matches were tough and against experienced opposition, but everyone in the squad stood up, played their part and as a team we put together some of the best handball of our year. To lose by one goal in the quarter final hurts us now, but will only make us stronger as we head into the second half of our season.”
Every player from every team performed at their absolute best over the weekend; with each team performing better than ever before in the championship, but special mention has to be given to the players of the competition. For the first team men, Seb Reboah for scoring over 40 goals throughout the competition and who’s experience in the game helped Loughborough to their best finish ever. For the second team men, Steven Fenner, with his consistently excellent performance in goal against incredibly tough opposition and for the women Beth Gregory, new to handball and being in goal, Beth’s saves helped win Loughborough the game, most notably the fore mentioned penalty.
Loughborough first team are about to come into a tough run of fixtures in the league as they fight to hold onto second place. Wins in their last few matches would see the boys competing in the play offs during the Easter holidays for promotion into the Super Eight, the top league in Britain. The University Championship weekend showed the dramatic increase in the popularity of handball and hopefully is a sign of things to come for the sport.