Rushe sisters lead the way for UCD Handball side in Minnesota


In the last Collegiate Handball Intervarsities in the traditional format, UCD managed to take two titles on American soil, writes Fearghal Kerin.

ONE OF AMERICA’S coldest cities was the venue for 2009’s Collegiate Handball Intervarsities, with Minnesota’s temperature reaching troughs of ten degrees below freezing point during the UCD teams’ stay. The extreme weather is just one standout of what was a memorable trip for the five competitors, with 300 participants in what is a tournament, which increases in prestige with each passing year.

Amongst the 39 strong Irish contingent were the five UCD competitors Kevin Mulligan, Declan Smith, Darragh Ruane aswell as talented sisters, Marianna and Hilary Rushe. The Rushe sisters’ burgeoning reputation on a global scale led to them being entered in the Women’s Open, with Marianna the number one seed. As a doubles team, they were surprisingly only seeded as third.

The first two days were very successful for each and every member of the squad, with everyone progressing through the opening rounds as far as the round of sixteen before the first fallers came. This in itself was no mean feat, as the despite the inclement weather, the alleys themselves in America are much warmer, and the balls heavier, which results in a different type of spin.

Thus to negotiate the opening rounds as they tried to get to grips with the conditions makes it an achievement not to be disregarded. Smith, Mulligan and Ruane made their exits in the round of 16, with the latter duo suffering narrow defeats to what were the eventual winners; Mulligan losing 21-17, 21-18 to Utah State University’s Zack Bateman; and Ruane – severely hampered by a bad right arm injury – losing 21-11, 21-14 to Lake Forrest College’s Pat Jarvis of Illinois. Regrets as to what might have been will forever linger perhaps, particularly in the case of the injured Ruane.

Hilary Rushe showed great spirit in her tie with Cara Arsenault of Missouri State but the scoreline of 21-18, 21-19 with Arsenault herself also going on to win that section.

For Hilary however, her victory in the previous round over the University of Texas’ Brittany Babida in an epic two-and-a-half-hour game in which she came back from a game behind to defeat the highly rated Babida was a classic and unforgettable tie, which could easily act as an advertisement for the sport.

If hard luck stories were becoming the story of the tournament for the Irish travellers, then how about Mulligan and Ruane’s elimination from the Men’s Doubles? After a great win in the quarterfinals, an error in their reading of the timetable meant they were an hour late for their semi-final battle with fellow Irishmen, DCU’s David Smith and Kieran O’Sullivan.

“Hilary Rushe showed great spirit in her tie with the wonderfully named Cara Arsenault of Missouri State”

The punishment for this was a five point penalty, and they were forced to play without a warm-up and forbidden from any time-outs. Predictably, this saw them losing the opening game, and quickly falling 19-7 behind in the second. However, they eventually began to shake off what was the worst possible preparation for the clash, and staged a remarkable comeback and got within a point of the Northside duo, before eventually falling off and being eliminated as Ruane’s injury problems exacerbated.

While the men gave a good account for themselves, it was Roscommon’s Rushes who predictably brought the silverwear back to Belfield. Despite Hilary’s earlier defeat in singles action, with her sister Mariana by her side the duo managed to take the Ladies Double’s Title despite a far from generous third seeding and subsequent draw which saw them having to face the host university aswell as Lake Forest, one of thee eminent American handball hotbeds before eventually making it to the final, in which they once more were second-favourites against doubles specialists and top seeds Aimee Ulbert and Emily Zender.

As expected, Ulbert and Zender raced off to a lead of 12-5, with Ulbert dominating the play. However, the sisters began to show their promise from the earlier round and impose their style on the game despite a far from convincing opening. With the first game tied at 18-18, Marianna’s world class shone as she repeatedly finished rallies to garner an uninterrupted three point haul to take what had not long before looked an irrecoverable game.

A change in tactics exacted in the second game saw a much more one-sided game, as Marianna varied from what had been a more powerful server in the opening game, to a lob shot that their opponents failed badly to deal with and the Rushe’s eventually cruised to a 21-8 victory that will live long in the memory for the UCD in that it was so much against the odds given the bias shown in the seeding.

If Ulbert was by this point sick of the sight of Marianna Rushe, the following day’s final led to further heartbreak for the Lake Forrest player. Surprisingly, Ulbert’s serve caused massive problems for Rushe, with her scoring eleven aces in the opening game. However, these were also her only scores, with Rushe pulverising her 21-11, and taking the set 21-7 in a much swifter second game demolition.

Following this, there can be doubt as to Rushe’s place in the current pantheon of handball players on a global scale, particularly in light of changes to be made the current format of the competition.

This is the result of a dispute between the sports two governing bodies stateside sees a split with the United States Handball Association (USHA) and World Pro Handball (WPH) disagreeing over how the tournament should be run. The Irish players are supporting the WPH, as they see the USHA’s rules as outlandish, and the WPH as a more professional union. However, many colleges and competitors from these games have chosen to support the USHA event instead.

The result of this means that it is the last time that players like the Rushe will have the opportunity to prove themselves as the eminent players, and with both being named as All-Americans for their achievements, perhaps the Lake College players will be just as happy to avoid Roscommon and UCD’s finest in future.