|Written by Jennifer Farrell|
|Friday, 06 April 2007|
After two losses to Canada at the beginning of January, the US Team Handball Women’s National Team (WNT) had one last chance to try to qualify for the 2007 Pan-American Games (PAG). Between March 29-31, the USA, Mexico, and Chile played a round-robin style tournament in Mexico City to see which of the three teams would take the eighth and final spot at the PAG. After beating both the USA and Chile, Mexico was declared the winner of the tournament and will make the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in July to compete for an Olympic qualification.
The WNT arrived at the Mexican Olympic Training Center in Mexico City on Tuesday March 27, and held four practices before their first game on Thursday evening. With Mexico City at an altitude of nearly 7400 feet above sea level, there was little time for the team to acclimate to the more challenging playing environment.
“We knew that we were at a disadvantage going in,” said head coach Dawn Lewis. “Although we were in great shape, we train at 1200 feet, competed at 7000 feet and did not have time to acclimate. We had our own issues and altitude was not the determining factor, but it did have an effect on our performance.”
The first match of the tournament pitted the USA against the host country of Mexico. Although the WNT scored the first goal of the game, Mexico quickly responded and took an early lead which they kept throughout the match. The game was 13-9 going into halftime, but Mexico quickly took an even bigger lead in the first few minutes of the second half, and the USA struggled to stay within ten during the last thirty-minutes.
“Although the gym was small, the stands were full and the crowd was engaged and spirited, creating a fun environment,” recalled Lewis. “Mexico used that energy, and ultimately the momentum to their advantage. They did not do anything special, however, what they did do was use their speed to force the tempo, each player fulfilled their role, moved the ball well technically and executed their game plan accordingly. Unfortunately, we did little to disrupt their rhythm or flow, which is frustrating since defense has always been our rock.”
The game finished 29-20, with Dawn Lewis leading the WNT with seven goals, and team captain Tomuke Ebuwei putting in six.
In a team meeting after the first game, the WNT re-centered themselves and prepared to play Chile the next day. Both coaches- Dawn Lewis and Danish assistant coach Thomas Broend- agreed that the defense would really need to step up in the next match, and was the focus of pre-game practice.
“Due to the way the schedule was devised, we played both teams unseen. We tried to do our homework, contacting handball friends abroad and otherwise; unfortunately, we got very little help. The only thing did know prior to the matches was that both teams would be small and fast.”
By playing with passion and resolve defensively, the WNT was able to raise their level of intensity against Chile, and the match stayed extremely close throughout the sixty minutes. Chile was up by one at half-time (16-15) and finished ahead with a final score of 31-30 after a final goal attempt by the USA was denied in the last second of the game.
“The team played with a lot of heart. We knew we were capable of playing much better than we did against Mexico and wanted to prove that to ourselves. As a result, we played hard for 60 minutes, but not always smart. We had six more turnovers and nine extra shot attempts. In addition, we played one man short for 10 minutes longer than Chile. I think we were fortunate to finish only one goal down.”
“I think that the players in the second match were fighting great, but we did not have the luck in the end,” said assistant coach Thomas Brond, who joined the WNT staff in December after the Sweden Tour. “It’s always hard to lose a match when you are doing the best you can.”
Among those WNT who contributed significantly in the second game were Megan Ballard, who scored six goals and was named player of the game, Dawn Lewis scoring six, Tabitha Lowey who put in four, and Anne Coulter with three.
“Megan, Tabby and Anne really stepped up in this game. Their intensity, tenacity and leadership helped propel the team, especially in the final five minutes,” explained Lewis. “Coming from two rookies – Tabby and Anne – in a tight match, with a lot on the line, their performance was particularly impressive.”
Although they will not have the opportunity to compete at the Pan-American Games this summer, it is not over for the women of Team USA. They will continue to train hard and prepare for the upcoming Pan-American Championships, which will take place in the Dominican Republic from May 30-June 3. This competition will serve as the qualification for the 2007 World Championships, and the top four teams will earn the right to compete for in France this December.
“Although the importance of these matches cannot be denied, the fact is, we need to learn from this experience,” reflected Dawn Lewis. “We have six weeks to refine the skills we have been working on, get our heads on straight and look forward to the next opportunity – qualifying for the grandest event, the World Championships. We have improved a lot over the last three weeks. The players are much better than what they demonstrated; technically they are much more sound and continue to evolve individually and play with confidence. Now, we just need to transform those qualities into performing well as a team.”
photos Janos Schmidt