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Victory at Hand in Tennessee?


By Daniel Gil

In case you overlooked it in the small grey type below the boxscores, the NCAA Handball Tournament gets underway this morning in Chattanooga, Tenn.

So what? Well don't turn the page yet. This is not one of those fillers which meander over the fold in the page only to conclude the obvious, that there is not much happening in sports today.

You see, Harvard is entered in this three-day marathon and has a chance to win. Furthermore Harvard's team consists of just one, Dan Acosta, a Kirkland House sophomore.

And there's the story, of a lot of hard work without a coach holding a stopwatch or leaving a cloud of chalkdust.

Violins please.

"This has been a life's dream for me," Acosta says of this weekend's tournament.

He grew up in the Southwest where squash racquets are forsaken for phalanges and metacarpals (that's fingers and hands). Handball is played in the schools and sweaty YMCAs of towns with names such as Albuquerque, Amarillo and El Paso.

The game is very similar to squash. It should be noted that the ball, a compressed rubber sphere, can travel 90 miles per hour leaving hands bruised and calloused (in the beginning they "swell up like a tomato") and players knocked unconscious if they are caught looking the wrong way.

Acosta started darting after balls inside courts resembling behavior boxes from the upper reaches of William James at the age of nine.

He has won tournaments from the Honolulu Open to the Cambridge YMCA tourney. In 1974, Acosta placed sixth in the national Junior Handball Championships.

After being named all-New Mexico twice, Acosta seemed on his way to the pinnacle of handball, with scholarship offers to four of "the big handball schools." (Name all four and you win a trip to Chattanooga by choo-choo.)

But Acosta chose Harvard figuring that a good education was more important than success in the world of handball.

More violins.

After flirting briefly with freshman crew, however, Acosta got in with the handball groupies down at the Cambridge "Y," and was once again bit by the handball bug.

Looking ahead to the NCAAs he started practicing 15 to 20 hours a week running, weight lifting, and playing, getting his only coaching from hangers-on at the YMCA courts.

Acosta convinced the Harvard athletic department, the folks who bring you the ticket coupon books, to sponsor him, although Harvard has no team or club.

"It is fulfilling," Acosta says, that now he is able to get an education and still go to the championships, which he "never thought possible."

Acosta will be up against many highly organized teams with full-time coaches, which will put him at a disadvantage. "It's really difficult to get out there and push hard when there's nobody yelling and screaming for you, telling you what you're doing wrong."

But he feels his toughest competition will be the people he faced in the Junior Nationals two years ago so he knows what he is up against. "I think I've got as good a chance as anybody if my game is on," Acosta says.

There will be some red-faced athletic directors in Chattanooga if Acosta manages to cop the top prize, one man against all the "big handball schools."

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