UNC transfer finds community and passion in niche sport, handball

By Harrison Clark

CJ Zavada and his fellow UNC-Chapel Hill teammates mobbed the court, jumping with joy; they finally did it.

After falling short in the college national semifinals, the Tar Heels finished the season with a U.S. Open championship against the San Francisco CalHeat, a team they had lost to in pool play. “Sweet Caroline” blared through the Adrian College speakers and the tightly knit squad sang their hearts out together. The final score read 25-17.

No, this wasn’t a basketball game. Or a soccer game. Or a volleyball game. It’s handball – a sport Zavada has come to love and hopes to grow.

The “natural”

Growing up in Windermere, Florida, Zavada played a plethora of sports but fell in love with the game of basketball. He always played up an age group, taking on older kids in both Upward Sports church leagues and AAU circuits. He had natural athleticism, allowing him to be successful in nearly every sport he played.

“He gets it from his mom,” Zavada’s father, Jay Zavada, said with a big laugh. Zavada’s mother, Yvonne, played collegiate basketball at Transylvania University, a Division-III school in Kentucky.

Known for his pesky defensive plays and quickness, college coaches gathered to watch Zavada play for Windermere High School. Zavada embraced defending the other team’s best players while also running the show as point guard — strategically calling and making plays. By the time high school ended, he accepted an offer to play at Gettysburg College, following in Yvonne’s footsteps of playing college hoops.  

As he entered college, two senior guards would graduate in front of him and loads of playing time would come his way, potentially even a starting spot. However, after spending his freshman year fighting for minutes on the court, Zavada decided to make a change. 

“It was a mix of feeling content with the sport I played my whole life and that I had reached a point where it is okay to hang up the shoes now,” Zavada said.

With a plan of pursuing dentistry, Zavada transferred to UNC in the fall of 2020.

Branching out

Due to COVID-19, Zavada’s first year at UNC was dominated by social distancing and a lack of gym facilities available for use. Desiring to “scratch the athletic itch,” Zavada randomly searched if UNC had a handball team. 

Before college, Zavada had only been exposed to handball once. As a seventh grader, Zavada’s eyes grazed a Team USA handball poster at a pizza place at Auburn University — he thought the sport looked awesome. He was impressed by the size of the players and it reminded him of “speedball,” a similar-looking game he played in middle school. Yet, the memory never recycled back through his mind.

While browsing UNC’s social site Heel Life, Zavada recognized the handball contact, Alex Irmscher, who attended Zavada’s rival high school in Florida along with having some mutual friends between them.

After reaching out, Irmscher invited Zavada to his house and made homemade chili. The rest of the night, Irmscher described some of the handball rules. 

Three steps, not two.

Dribble it like a 1920s NBA player with your hand on top of the ball.

Positions are like soccer but on an indoor court longer and wider than a basketball court.

Substitutions on the fly like ice hockey.

Goals can only be scored by throwing it in the net only from behind the big arc.

Zavada was playing with a “steep learning curve” while initially starting handball. Yet, he loved it.

With Zavada’s natural athleticism and his experience in various sports, he got the hang of the rules within a couple of weeks of practice, faster than most when first taking up handball.

And, he got to be quite good at it.

“People would tell me, ‘Wow, I do not understand how you are getting it this fast,’” Zavada said. “There are still people on the squad who have played much longer than I have who do not know all of the rules.”

After restrictions were lifted, Zavada played his first match for UNC in Fetzer Gym against the New York Athletic Club, a team featuring primarily grown adults who have played for years and are often respected as one of the best teams in the country. Due to the lack of many collegiate handball teams, UNC often plays semi-pro clubs such as NYAC.

“They had some guys in the middle who were around 6’4” and 260 pounds,” Zavada said. “It was intimidating, super physical, trash-talking the whole game. I absolutely loved it. 

In addition, Zavada scored seven goals in that game.

Moving forward

While falling in love with handball, Zavada came to a crossroads academically, where he rethought his original path of dentistry.

Zavada hated shadowing. He hated his science classes. He was not looking forward to completing his residency and potentially being poor for six years before hopefully owning a practice, which would likely lead to debt. So, he switched to business.

Fully focused on handball and his business major, The American Handball Company peaked both interests. After the company organized a well-run U.S. Open tournament in Detroit, Zavada reached out to the company to intern and share his visions for the sport.

In Europe and South America, handball is the second most popular sport following soccer. Yet in the United States, many people are unaware of what handball even is.

It bothered Zavada that only a few college programs have handball teams, along with the fact that young kids in the United States are not taught handball like in Europe or Latin America. 

Zavada wants a real league of professional handball teams, something that is long-lasting like the NHL or the NBA. He feels that down the road The American Handball Company could foster a new league and create excitement surrounding handball in the States.

“There is no NBA of handball,” Zavada said. “The UFC, the National Lacrosse League, they were nothing at one point. But if you can help grow it and build it up, that would be something really special.” 

 Zavada would not rule out the possibility of playing handball overseas one day, with the skill and exposure levels being far higher in Europe and South America. Thus, the chance to get trained by elite coaches and potentially breakthrough untapped potential is an enticing prospect. 

Zavada’s ultimate dream is to represent the United States handball team in the Olympic Games. While it seems more unlikely than likely due to the United States not qualifying for the next Games in Paris, the dream remains.

“It would just be cool to play for the U.S. in the Olympics,” Zavada said. “That would be why I would not mind playing in Europe.”

For now, he is focused on his senior season and carrying out his visions for the sport.


Edited by Macon Porterfield and Ryan Mills