It’s 10 p.m. inside Concordia’s Olson Forum and groups of students play basketball at hoops at the two ends of the indoor gymnasium. With each layup, basket, and three-pointer — most of which clank off the rim and bounce to awaiting rebounders — the students blow off steam and get a much-needed respite from the harsh reality of a final month of the academic year riddled with papers, exams and finals.
But if you happen to wander into Olson Forum at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, it’s another group of athletes that stand out. Where the courts on either end of the indoor track are visible for all to see, the middle court — Court 3 — is shrouded by the mammoth maroon curtains that separate the courts and allow groups to keep their basketballs from bounding away across the linoleum floor.
The ragtag group of students at Court 3 are not playing basketball. They have traded in basketball hoops for soccer goals and basketballs for a hard leather ball that resembles a small soccer ball. But these students aren’t playing soccer either.
Nope. They’re playing handball.
In the center of Court 3, a circle has formed around a student who is offering his particular set of skills to the Concordia community.
Moses Mukori is a freshman from Harare, Zimbabwe, who followed his brother to Concordia after spending time working and studying in South Africa. In his spare time, Mukori started Concordia’s first ever team handball club. The 19-year-old has been playing handball since he was 14, and has taken on a coaching role in order to show his fellow students the fundamentals of the game.
“I was still adjusting a little bit last semester,” Mukori said. “I talked to some people about this idea then, and my friends were all really supportive in helping me actually start the club and get funding from the SGA so we could start practicing after Christmas.”
The group has overcome adversity in its first four months of existence, mostly in the form of a small attendance at practices.
When organized training began in January, just five people were showing up to practice. Attendance certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that the only available court rental time was 10 p.m. on Wednesday nights. Other students who have come out to try the brand new sport say it isn’t easy to make time for handball. Freshman Ian Kruse was one of these students.
“It’s tough to come out each week when the practice is so late,” Kruse said. “At the end of the day though, it’s really fun to play with my friends and learn a new sport while helping to grow handball’s influence on campus.”
In many ways, this year is just a test run for Concordia handball. Since the club did not get funding until January, they did not schedule any matches against other schools. Furthermore, only a few handball squads exist in Minnesota at all — most of which are in the Twin Cities.
Because many of the teams Concordia would be playing are out of town, additional plans and financing for travel would have been necessary for the group to go on the road. That’s in addition to the fact that the club only has about ten members and still has not played even a scrimmage.
Simply put, any match this year would have resulted in the complete annihilation of an immature Concordia program.
Mukori and the three other students that make up the executive committee for the handball club knew this going into the semester, so they have focused on building the team and preparing for the squad’s first full season, beginning next fall, by scheduling matches, seeking out invites to tournaments, buying equipment and designing uniforms for the club’s first matches next season.
Mukori understands that getting the program off the ground will be a major undertaking that will most likely require players to shell out some of their own money to buy uniforms and supplies.
“We get a limited amount of funding from the school,” Mukori said, “It’s only enough to get some equipment and pay for travel and such for away matches. We are currently looking at purchasing jerseys, hoodies and t-shirts. The money for those will have to come from somewhere.”
With a little less than a month remaining in the Concordia academic year, the group is beginning fundraising efforts to raise money for these future expenses. Later this month, the handball team will host a movie night/video game tournament and start selling Concordia handball apparel to raise money for their uniforms. The group is also hosting a screening of a handball documentary on April 25 in an effort to recruit new players and raise money through concession sales.
In addition to the fundraising efforts, the club is looking to increase awareness of handball in the community through volunteering efforts with the Fargo and Moorhead Parks & Recreation departments. Mukori wants to host events where local kids can learn more about the game of handball and try it out for themselves. This is all part of his plan to grow the game in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“In order to make sure that we have players to take the spots once we leave, we have to make sure that kids are getting involved and starting to learn the game,” Moses said.
The game features seven players on each team, including one goaltender, trying to throw the ball into the opposing team’s goal. Handball is played on a court roughly the size of a basketball court, with goals on either end. Each goal is surround by a semi-circular zone called the d-zone that only the defensive team’s goaltender can enter. When players catch the ball, they have to stop moving and can only move via pivot — for the basketball fans out there, catching the ball in handball is equivalent to picking up your dribble in terms of legal movement. To make things more difficult, players have only three seconds once they receive the ball to either pass it to a teammate or shoot at the net.
Freshman Keith Sullivan says the sport is welcoming to all athletes because it requires a variety of skills.
“Handball is fun because it combines a lot of skills that people bring in from other sports,” Sullivan said. “Because the game requires lots of different athletic abilities, it means almost anyone can play and excel with a little practice.”
Inclusivity has been a key factor for the club so far. At the most recent practice, Mukori stressed that he would much rather have committed players than talented ones. At the end of the session, Moses told his team that they would be the cornerstone of the program going forward.
“I just wanted to let you guys know that I would much rather have you guys out there beside me instead of some other guys that just show up to play,” Mukori said. “They might be faster or better, but I want to play with all of you that come out and really try to make yourselves better.”
Whether or not there is in fact an elusive group of handball all stars hiding in Cobberland remains to be seen, but Mukori’s message echoes the club’s hopes for a familial connection as it grows and matures. As a new program, the group knows that the results on the court might not be successful right off the bat, but the organizers are mostly freshman with three more years at Concordia to grow the program.
The members of the handball team, including freshman Jon Inthisian, recognize this issue.
“We know that we’re all pretty young,” Inthisian said. “Hopefully we can get more players before we start next year, but I think it’s better for us to teach the game to younger players so that we will be better as a club for longer.”
When the team starts regular play next fall, it will not only be facing teams with significantly more experience, but also teams that are older than the current group. Because while the organizers’ youth may be an asset in building the team from the ground up, it may well inhibit the group’s results against teams from other schools that have upperclassmen who have played handball for several years. This is another reason the handball club wants to step up recruitment efforts for next year.
Moses Mukori sees a bright future for the group.
“In four years, I see this club being very successful and competing at tournaments all around the world. I want to grow this group to not only be successful, but also inspire other schools around the area to play the sport I love.”