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Harvard's Hot Hand Sizzles

By Brian E. Fallon, Crimson Staff Writer

Oddly enough, one of Harvard's most successful athletic programs is not even included among the school's official list of 41 varsity squads.

Nonetheless, despite its status as just a club team, the Harvard handball team has gained national recognition, earning a ninth-place national ranking just two months into its existence.

Much of the credit for the team's creation and ensuing success belongs to Harvard fifth-year senior Vini Letteri.

One of the top-ranked players in the country, Letteri has steered the Crimson to the top of the national handball circuit.

In doing so, Letteri has effectively passed along his own love of the game of handball to his teammates, many of whom are new to the sport.

Such success seemingly comes naturally to Letteri. Since early on, he has constantly challenged himself to meet his own high expectations, and more often than not, he has proven to be up to the task.

A Man of All Seasons

Growing up, Letteri played almost every sport imaginable. Football, soccer, swimming, volleyball--you name it, and chances are that Letteri at least dabbled in it for a few seasons.

It was only by accident, however, that Letteri, who lettered in seven sports while attending high school at Boston Latin, was introduced to the game that he would eventually grow to love most.

When he was eleven years old, Letteri, used to juggling several sports at once, decided he needed even more activities to keep him busy.

"During the summer, baseball was usually the only thing I did," Letteri recalled. "I needed another sport to play."

And so one day that summer, Letteri accompanied a friend down to the neighborhood athletic center, intent upon learning the ins and outs of racquetball. When he arrived at the courts, though, he was surprised by what he saw.

"There were a few people down there who played racquetball, but there was a whole slew of handball players," Letteri said. "They used to get upset at me when I would take the court to play racquetball, saying that I should play handball."

Eventually, Letteri fell in line with the crowd at the athletic center and adopted handball.

"The more I went down with these old guys--they were about fifty or sixty-years-old--the more they would encourage me to try it," Letteri said. "After a while I just really fell in love with the game."

After acquainting himself with the rules and developing a passion for the game, it would not take long until Letteri established himself as one of the best handball players in the country.

A Helping Hand

Letteri's game quickly blossomed under the patient tutelage of the older players whom he met at the athletic center.

"When I first started playing handball, for some reason, I was just good at it," said Letteri. "It just made sense to me."

In time, Letteri, who has not seen his father since he was eleven years old, developed lasting friendships with the men who taught him handball. Through their morning practice sessions, their relationship came to extend beyond sports.

"They were pretty much father figures in my life," Letteri said. "They would teach me a lot of stuff, they'd take me out to breakfast, and afterwards, they always ended up giving me little lessons on life."

With his new older friends sponsoring him, Letteri began entering, and winning, tournaments. As a teenager, he placed first in both the 15-&-under and 17-&-under national handball tourneys.

His remarkable performances earned him the attention of a former pro handball player named Charlie Hillil. Needless to say, Hillil was impressed by Letteri's abilities and offered to become his coach.

"[Hillil] saw something in me, and he took me under his wing," Letteri said.

A natural talent, Letteri flourished even more with a full-time coach offering him advice. By his senior year of high school, he had already drawn interest from several colleges that had developed very strong handball programs.

In the end, though, Letteri selected Harvard, a school that, at that time, had no handball program whatsoever. In the years since making that decision, Letteri has watched several of his former rivals develop into some of the world's best players. He has monitored their progress while he has been at Harvard, and their improvement sometimes makes him wonder what might have been if he had made the same choice as them.

"It's been kind of bittersweet," Letteri said. "I know if I had went to one of the schools that had a full-time coach, I could have been right up there with them."

Still, Letteri has no regrets. When he recently met up with the coach from one of the schools he had been considering before choosing Harvard, he was asked if he had ever thought twice about his choice.

"I didn't even blink, and I told him I do it all over again," said Letteri.

Back in the Swing of the Things

Letteri entered Harvard in the fall of 1995. During his first four years, he seemed to find his niche easily, involving himself in a number of activities. Among other things, he became a brother in the Sigma Chi fraternity, and also spent four years on the varsity volleyball team.

Back in the Swing of the Things

As his commencement date approached, however, Letteri grew more and more uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the cozy confines of Harvard.

"I felt like I wasn't ready to leave school," Letteri said. "I wasn't ready to go out into the world."

Letteri thus came to the decision to postpone his graduation one year, and last spring, he took an eight-month trip to Australia.

The time away from home changed his outlook on life and helped him rearrange his priorities

"Looking back on it, it was the best decision I ever made," Letteri said. "It made me a stronger person. I am more comfortable with who I am and what my values are. I focused more on doing things that made me happy, which, in a way, got me back to handball."

Upon returning from the Land Down Under, Letteri once again took up handball, the game from which he had taken a leave of absence for the past four years.

As things turned out, it was like he had never been away from the game at all.

Letteri was helped, in part, by his four years spent with the volleyball team, which ensured that he did not lose his work ethic or fall out of shape.

Nonetheless, no one could have expected how immediately Letteri returned to top form.

This past summer, Letteri competed against both amateur and professional players in a national handball tournament and turned in an amazing second-place performance that Letteri said surprised even himself.

From this point on, Letteri said he thinks he has nowhere to go but up.

Aware that he is still young and constantly improving, Letteri remains confident that he can compete with the likes of anyone.

"I know that when I am on my game, I can beat anyone in the world,"

Letteri said.

One of the best amateur players on

the planet, Letteri has an eye towards turning pro in the next few months.

While Letteri has no plans to make a career out of handball (he already has a consulting job lined up for after graduation), he intends to continue with the sport as a side-activity.

"It will be a fun thing to do in my free time," Letteri said.

In the meantime, Letteri has busied himself building up Harvard's handball program and ensuring its survival after his graduation.

Thanks to lobbying by Letteri and sophomore Michael Housman, Harvard officially recognized handball as a club sport this past January.

The team now consists of ten or twelve people, who gather once a week for practices. The team meets at the Cambridge YMCA, because Harvard has no racquetball courts, which are the only surfaces compatible with handball.

A true ambassador of the game, Letteri has passed on to his fellow students a love of handball.

"We've had a lot of interest from people, especially ex-athletes who may not have been good enough to compete in the sports that they used to play," Letteri said.

In many ways, Letteri has passed on to his classmates the very same gift that the older gentlemen at the athletic center bestowed upon him when he was eleven.

Most likely, Letteri's efforts at Harvard have ensured the success of the handball program even after he leaves Cambridge.

Local Boy Makes Good

Ten years after he first showed up at the racquetball courts across in his neighborhood, Letteri still returns to play with the neighborhood handball players whenever he returns home.

"As much as I go to play handball with them, I go just to listen to them as well," Letteri said.

Whatever lessons those handball players taught Letteri, he surely learned them well.

Those back in Letteri's hometown of South Boston are inclined to gush about him as their town's favorite son. While it may cause Letteri some embarrassment, it is not without cause. Letteri is definitely one local boy who has made good.

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