Love of the game drives players, coaches to grow handball at Penn State

Women’s team wins its first national championship in its inaugural season
EMS handball

The Penn State women's handball team won the national championship in its first season. Two of the team's coaches are from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Credit: Maria Carolina

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — 2013 was shaping up to be a great year for Simao Hamilton Yala. He was playing professionally for the junior handball team in his home country of Angola when the senior team called his number.

Soon after, as one goalie parted ways, he jumped in to fill the spot. And, at the coach’s request, that’s where he stayed.

Yala quickly propelled his team to qualifying for the International Handball Federation World Men’s Handball Championships, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete for the world title.

But, as his team entered the tournament, Yala wasn’t guarding the net. Something better had come up.

Yala took advantage of a scholarship to continue his education in the U.S. He joined Penn State Abington before heading to University Park, where he’s a senior majoring in mining engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS).

Yala calls it “the year of D” because of all the decisions he faced. He remembers his mother, Ana Cassua, who knew his love of the game, pleading with him to get a quality education.

“I had to decide to stay home and play handball or come to Penn State to get an education,” Yala said. The U.S. is one of the best countries in the world. My mom cried because she knows that I really love handball. She said ‘please, go get an education. Then you can do whatever you want. But, please, first get an education.’ ”

Yala is one of many EMS students to have played on the team.

Growing a sport at Penn State

As things were beginning for Yala, so was the club sport handball at Penn State. That’s thanks to two members of EMS.

Academic adviser Michael Gordon, who played soccer for Seton Hall, helped found the club in 2012 after the London Olympics generated interest in the sport. The assistant coach and former player who fell in love with the game has seen the program grow from “four guys throwing a ball around the gym, not knowing the rules” to competitive teams of about 120 men and 30 women.

This season, the women’s team won its first national championship in its inaugural season and the men’s team, now in its fifth season, won its regular season conference title and made the Elite 8.

Gordon said although there is a bump in excitement after each Olympics, few in the U.S. know much about the game. Most who enter the club at Penn State adapt their skills from football, soccer or basketball.

“The way we try to describe it to people is it’s like water polo on land or soccer with your hands,” said Gordon, who this past weekend was named Most Valuable Goalie for Division I at the U.S. Open Handball Championships in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “That’s the best first description that we can give.”

Handball is a fast-paced, high-scoring indoor game where players attempt to toss a ball that’s larger than a softball into indoor-soccer-sized nets. Because the game allows for some contact, similar to basketball, and games feature dozens of scored goals, it’s gained popularity at Penn State and elsewhere.

Head coach Thomas Lauvaux, who is an associate research professor of meteorology and atmospheric science, also has a hand in the team’s success. Lauvaux played regionally in France before switching to volleyball while a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State because he found little interest in the sport here.

Lauvaux found out about the club and jumped at the chance to get involved. Originally, he wanted to play but he found that, because of his knowledge of the game, coaching is where he would have the most impact.

“Initially, it was just a little club. We were trying to get a team together that could show up at the next game and not look bad. We weren’t even worried about competing,” said Lauvaux, who was named Coach of the Year for the 2015-16 season. “Now it's on another level. I think about practice, what the focus is going to be, the weak spots I noticed in the last tournament.”

Opportunity for growth

Yala spent a couple years at Penn State before finding the handball team, relinking him to a sport he fell in love with as a child. He’s not competing for a world title but he’s helping a team grow as he does the same for his career. He traded athletic accolades for academic achievements, but in some ways those two intersect. Both require hard work for the rewards.

“If you practice and work hard you can get everything you want,” Yala said. “We can be one of the best teams in the country, if we put the work in.”

He’s been able to advance his education while remaining close to the sport. After all, he says, college is more than just an education.

“It isn’t just about the degree,” Yala said. “It’s about the experiences that you accumulate throughout the years, whether it be clubs you join, students you meet or faculty who engage you. That’s what I love about Penn State.”