By: Joe Pohoryles
In late January 2020, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler appeared on the popular Barstool Sports podcast, “Pardon My Take,” and claimed that he could assemble a handball team that would win gold at the Olympics. Cutler’s remarks sparked some debate online as to how easy the sport of handball would be for current and former American professional athletes to pick up and play at a world champion level.
While the sport is certainly much more strategic and intense compared to the version you may have played in elementary school gym class, I thought it would be interesting to create a handball team using athletes from the four major DC sports teams.
Handball fields seven players on the court at once — a goalkeeper, right/left backs, a center, two wingers and a circle runner/pivot — for each side. In forming this team, I will assign seven starting positions, along with a bench of seven substitutes, as handball includes on-the-fly substitutions, much like ice hockey.
Since I have a pool of four teams to fill 14 spots, I want to keep things somewhat even, so there has to be at least three players from each team, and no more than four from any one team. The way it works out: two teams will have three representatives each, and the other two will have four.
In addition, at least one player from each team must be in the starting lineup. I want there to be some variety.
Finally, for an added twist, I will not be placing players in the same type of position that they play normally. If we were really building this team to compete for gold at the Olympics, then Capitals goaltenders Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov would be the clear picks for goalkeeper on this team. That’s not as fun though, so instead I will be selecting natural non-goaltenders that display the traits you would want to see in a goalkeeper.
Same goes for the center position, which is comparable to a point guard in basketball. It would be easy to stick John Wall or Bradley Beal into the playmaker position, so I will be picking a non-ball dominant player that still exudes strong playmaking abilities. Natural wing players cannot play on the wing, and natural center players cannot play in the center. These rules and selections are completely arbitrary, but if these restrictions were in place for a hypothetical tournament, then this squad would have the best shot to win.
Before getting into it, here are the roles and some general traits required for each position:
Goalkeeper – defends the goal, can use any part of body; requires good reaction speed/hand-eye coordination, length, core strength
Left/right backs – block shots, help attack from far away; requires large size, good bounce, long-range throwing power
Center – coordinates the attack, helps defend; requires versatility in attacking and defending, playmaking skills, court vision
Left/right wingers – counter opposing wings, attack from tighter angles; requires speed, accurate arms, court vision
Circle runner/pivot – central attacker, tries to mess up opponent’s defense; requires speed, aggression, good passing/shooting ability, playmaking ability
Goalkeeper: Rui Hachimura (Wizards forward)
The Japanese rookie is listed at 6’8″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, so his length is off the charts, and will serve him well for saves where he needs to extend himself. He’s young with an extremely athletic frame, and as a good rebounder in basketball, he should have little trouble securing loose balls.
Hachimura also played catcher in baseball as a youth, so he at least has some experience corralling balls launched at high speeds.
Right back: Juan Soto (Nationals outfielder)
Left back: Brandon Scherff (Redskins guard)
Soto packs a lot of power into a 6’1″, 220-pound frame. He certainly doesn’t pose as big of an obstacle as Scherff, but as a Gold Glove nominee in 2019, he flashes potential on the defensive end of the handball court. His biggest calling card will be long-range attacking.
As evidenced in the video, Soto would be a scoring threat from practically anywhere on the court. In handball, if the outside player is left-handed, they typically play on the right, and vice versa, so the left-handed Soto would occupy right back, even though he plays left field in baseball.
Scherff, meanwhile, is one of the biggest players to choose from at 6’5″, 315 pounds. A player his size will be a nightmare for opposing players to shoot around, but he is also incredibly athletic. He ran a 5.05 40-yard dash as a draft prospect, and he also has a 32.5″ vertical jump. Defenders need to jump high in order to shoot over the other team’s defenders from long distances.
Not to mention, offensive linemen, despite their name, play a defensive-natured position: protecting the quarterback and fending off opposing rushers. Scherff should feel right at home, swapping out protecting the quarterback for defending the goal.
Center: John Carlson (Capitals defenseman)
Carlson is natural defenseman, so he’ll be able to help out the right and left backs, but one of his biggest strengths in hockey is his offensive ability. This season he led all defensemen in points (75) and assists (60). For the Capitals’ power play, Carlson mans the point position, finding the best passing lanes while sometimes launching slap shots himself, so he does have experience in a playmaking role.
Right wing: Steven Sims Jr. (Redskins wide receiver/return specialist)
Left wing: Trea Turner (Nationals shortstop)
Sims would be one of the smaller players on the roster, but boy can he fly. He ran a 4.30 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, and as rookie last season, dusted opponents on returns. His role is only going to increase with the Redskins, but for this handball team, Sims would be a star from Day 1.
The only question would be his ability to shoot from tight angles, but at the very least you’ll know any passes coming his way won’t be dropped. In addition, his role as a return man forces him to find the gaps and make quick decisions, which should serve him well with court vision.
As good as Sims is, the most obvious choice for the wing position would be Turner. As one of the fastest players in baseball, Turner and his speed on the base paths would translate well to the handball court. Defensively, he is responsible for snagging grounders and throwing runners out on the dime, so his ability to make strong, accurate throws would be perfect for the tight angle shots.
Circle runner/pivot: TJ Oshie (Capitals winger)
Oshie brings 110 percent effort to every shift he plays, and as a crafty offensive mind in the NHL, he is used to setting up teammates as well as taking on a whole defense himself. He’ll be the engine in offense, and as a forward who always wears out opponents on the boards, he should also be a real pest for opposing defenses.
Goalkeeper: Landon Collins (Redskins safety)
- Used to being the last line of defense
- Jumps to break up passes in NFL, will need similar skillset in net
- Question mark: length
Right back: Thomas Bryant (Wizards center)
- 6’10” in height, 7’6″ wingspan; able to stretch out to block incoming shots
- Great jumping ability
- Rim protection instincts will serve him well
- Question mark: long-range shooting
Left back: Alex Ovechkin (Capitals winger)
- Big body, willing shot-blocker
- One of the best slap shots of all time = lethal from long-range
- Question mark: staying in position (he’s a natural goal scorer, will the temptation of offense be too much?)
Center: Adam Eaton (Nationals outfielder)
- Vocal leader, able to call shots
- Talented on offense and defense
- Question mark: court vision
Right wing: John Wall (Wizards guard)
- One of the fastest players in basketball (pre-Achilles injury)
- Great handles for dribbling, talented passer
- Natural scorer
- Question mark: health
Left wing: Max Scherzer (Nationals pitcher)
- Accurate arm for tight shooting angles
- Fast, hard shots (tops out at 96.5 mph fastball)
- Killer instinct; brings intensity on defense
- Question mark: speed
Circle runner/pivot: Tom Wilson (Capitals forward)
- Enforcer, able to terrorize opposing defenses
- Strong offensive skills
- Question mark: playmaking