J.D. Orr isn’t the most recognized coach at Ohio State. At a state school where the athletic programs are about as shiny and fine-tuned as the sousaphone dotting-the-i, J.D. is among the only ones coaching for a national championship who doesn’t have an office on campus.
But then again, J.D.’s position is voluntary, his sport doesn’t offer scholarships and it isn’t exactly sponsored by the NCAA - yet. But nevertheless, his team is becoming a bit of a powerhouse in their own right, with a place near the top of the standings in the Trailblazer Team Handball League - the only collegiate handball league in the United States.
J.D. Orr is the coach of the Ohio State Men’s Handball Club, a club team he helped create at the university that helped him make the U.S.A. Junior National Handball Team - twice.
Taking my call during his day job at a pharmaceuticals company, J.D. offered some insight into the evolving world of Collegiate Handball and how he wants his Buckeye program to be an example for many college programs to come.
“How did I get into handball? It’s a bit of a weird story, I would say. Both of my parents worked, so we'd go to summer camps when we were kids. At one of the camps, they taught us how to play what they called “ultimate handball”, which I come to find out now is what we call “mini handball”. And we took it back to our neighborhood and became our game that we all played… for years.”
But, like many of us in the states, who played handball in gym class, J.D. had never really seen the fast-paced version of the sport that proves it is one of the most exciting sports in the world. That changed, though, when he saw it on TV early into his college career.
“I got to Ohio State and was watching Handball in the 2012 Olympics, and start to wonder…Why does somewhere like Ohio State not have a Handball Team? There’s a ton of athletes here and a big intramural scene. It just seemed like a club team should exist.”
When J.D. looked up which club teams did exist at Ohio State, he didn’t find any mention of handball. So, he decided to start a team himself. And then, coincidentally, a chain of events introduced him to one of the top Handballers in America.
“So, I signed us up and went to a meeting for all the new clubs to introduce themselves. As I introduce the school’s new handball club to this group, the guy sitting next to me says, “Handball, huh… Do you know Mark Ortega?” I’m like, yeah, I know the name… He’s some big Handball guy in the U.S. And he says, “Oh, that’s my brother. Here’s his phone number.”
Mark Ortega was a recently retired center back for the U.S. National Team when J.D. first called him. Since then, he’s worked to develop a number of college handball programs and is an assistant coach for the Men’s National Team.
Before playing for professional handball teams in a handful of European countries, Ortega was a college wide-receiver who picked up handball as a post-graduate playing with a local club in Florida. His athleticism from college football and a childhood of competitive gymnastics made transferring his talent to professional handball extremely easy.
“Before reaching out to Mark, we were just kinda screwing around at practice. And then Mark starts showing up and all of my friends quit. They were like, “This guy is too serious.”
From that point on, J.D.’s Ohio State Handball Club was training like a professional team. And traveling like one, too.
“Mark helped me get on the Junior National Team. I did two stints with, uh, the Junior U21 National Team. We went to Guatemala for a tournament. We went to Sweden for a tournament. And then, Mark took us to Germany for spring break.”
In just a few semesters, J.D.’s fledgling handball club at Ohio State had already produced national team talent, played in international competition, and seen some of Europe’s top professional clubs play while traveling in Germany, thanks to Mark Ortega’s experience and guidance.
At the time, there were only a few collegiate handball teams playing in organized intercollegiate games. Pairing Mark’s philosophies and J.D.’s passion and athleticism proved that there could be a lot more playing at a high level in a short amount of time.
“I was not some elite athlete in high school, so to be able to represent Team USA after playing competitively for a few months was super cool. From there, we’ve just continued to grow our club. When I graduated, I stayed on as coach and then started as an assistant coach for the Junior National Team and the Senior Team. And I've done some other trips, to see the best handball teams play in Paraguay, Sweden, Denmark, and Egypt.”
Traveling internationally to learn more about Handball has been a huge part of J.D.’s development as a player, coach and especially a fan. And since that first trip to Germany with Mark Ortega during his college career, J.D. has made similar trips an integral part of developing his own players at Ohio State.
“I had never left the country, so it was so important to see the different cultures and people from all over the world who love this game. The coolest piece to share is how so many different people have a passion for the game over there. You can really only compare it to soccer, when trying to explain how much people in other parts of the world love the sport of handball. And sharing that with my own players is a major part of the buy-in to take the sport to the next level in the United States.”
Handball is one of the most popular sports in Europe, second to only soccer or hockey in Germany, Portugal, and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. In the rest of Europe, it is extremely popular with club teams in every city and professional teams that share the spotlight and social ties with the most popular football and basketball clubs. For example: the EHF Champions League was won by Barcelona last year, a Spanish handball powerhouse that is part of the FC Barcelona multi-sports club.
In the United States though, handball has not broken through to become one of the countries’ most popular sports. Several leagues exist around the country for athletes not affiliated with a college program, but a major-majority of the players fund their own participation, similar to many college teams.
The sport’s lack of attention - and frankly, elite competition - in the United States is why J.D. continues to plan European trips for his team at Ohio State.
“We try to do a spring break trip every couple years, so every four-year graduating class has the opportunity to go. My first year that I was coaching, I took the guys to Denmark and Germany. We stayed at a sports academy in Denmark, played a couple games against a really talented U15 Danish team and got coached by some great European coaches - Denmark's Assistant National Team coach was there. Our players got to meet some of the Danish National Team players who were coming off the 2016 Olympics. So, it was really fun...
And then we got courtside tickets for THW Kiel, which is like the New York Yankees of handball in northern Germany. So, we went to their game, got to meet some of the world champions, Olympic champions. It was a very cool experience. I think everybody was super pumped about that...
This past spring, I took the guys to Norway and spent time with the U.S. National Team coach and some of the coaches in his system. He got to see some of our players firsthand and then our guys got to train with some of the great talent in Norway. And it’s like Mark taught me, it’s so important for young athletes to get a taste of how crazy they are about handball outside of the United States.”
That firsthand experience and exposure with international teams has paid off for some of the Ohio State players, too. Luke Bolte, a 6’5” high-school basketball star, joined the Buckeyes Handball team in 2019 and was playing pivot for FC Porto’s B-team in 2022. FC Porto is a dominant professional club in Portugal's top-tier league Andebol-1.
“Luke was just a corn-fed Northwest Ohio kid, never heard of handball, when he started with us. And I helped get him onto the Junior National Team within three months of him playing the sport. And the coaches just loved him. We finally got him a contract and it's with a very good club."
Porto picked up the former-Buckeye Bolte, following his graduation, in a partnership with Forum Club Handball, in an effort to develop more talent from USA Handball’s roster. J.D. has continued to follow Bolte’s development and says he’s gotten some valuable reps on Porto’s second team.
“It was awesome getting a guy over there to do it professionally after playing for us. It shows the rest of our players and even recruits that, you know, this isn't some joke or gym class game… Athletes get paid millions of dollars to play this game in front of fans in Europe and that isn’t something to take lightly. That’s what I really want to emphasize to all of the athletes that could follow Luke’s footsteps.”
And watching an athlete like Luke Bolte, with a huge wingspan and athleticism transfer their talent to handball certainly gets J.D. excited about the impression this generation of handballers will make overseas.
“Talking to coaches in Europe who have been paying attention, I would say they're scared of when the United States finally decides to take handball seriously. They know we have so many top notch athletes that it really would just be a numbers game if more high school and college athletes got involved.”
And as with Porto’s acquisition of a “corn-fed Northwest Ohio kid” through a partnership with USA Handball, it is essential that more clubs in Europe are looking in less-obvious places for new talent.
One of those less-obvious places has been Nigeria, a nation in North Africa known more for their export of football and basketball athletes than the less-popular sport of handball. But, European club owners have looked to Nigerian athletes like Faruk Yusuf, an 18-year-old playing for Granollers in Spain. Clubs have learned over the last decade that great talent, size, and passion can be found outside of Europe. Another selling point: under-the-radar players can be signed for a much smaller sum than European players from the typical development system.
J.D. is hoping he can help to put more infrastructure in place to create a pipeline of talent like Nigeria has built for their top players in the past decade.
“We have guys like Ty Reed on our national team. He played wide receiver at Alabama, a National Champion, and he can hang with anyone. , you know, he was on SG Flensburg’s second team in Germany. It's just like, we haven't been playing handball our whole life like all of the European players. We are athletically gifted enough to compete and show our worth, but it's just the nuances of the game and the flow that takes time to understand.”
The story of Ty Reed does include one of the biggest hurdles that J.D. and Team Handball coaches like him face in America: Most talented kids playing team sports in America grow up playing football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, soccer, or softball. Sports that are sponsored by elementary schools and high schools, and are even the first to be funded at community colleges and junior colleges, despite costing the most.
Even Ty Reed, the son of two U.S. National Handball Team athletes (his mother was an Olympian and his father played on the U.S.’ second team), ended up playing college football in college before returning to Handball after graduating. It just isn’t really a good option for athletes who want the best chance to attend college with a scholarship.
But, the sport is growing and there could be a point on the horizon where Team Handball, at least for the women’s teams, becomes an NCAA-sponsored sport that offers a larger budget for schools like Ohio State to secure athletes from other sports.
As of 2020, U.S.A. Team Handball recognizes 16 men’s teams in their Collegiate Club Directory and four women’s teams, including North Carolina, Penn State, Army-West Point, and Ohio State.
“That's what I try to sell kids on that are interested at Ohio State. I'm like, find me another sport that has a global presence like this that doesn't yet have a significant platform in the United States. You could be the first big name, you know? Handball is still looking for its James Naismith or Vince Lombardi, guys who made basketball and football into what they have become.”