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

Finding balance as a college athlete, a UNC student’s experience with burnout

By Harrison Clark

Charlie Schuls finally laid down in bed, physically and mentally drained. His legs felt like jelly and he stressed about what he was missing back on campus. 

The Villanova University men’s tennis team had completed a taxing doubleheader in Annapolis, Maryland. The squad took on the Navy in the early session and finished the day playing Morgan State University. Schuls competed in three matches in one day: two in singles and one in doubles.  

At night, Schuls thoughts left him tossing and turning. He was not motivated, had no energy and the wear on his body was taking a toll. Behind in classes, he missed being home and craved balance.

Schuls commitment to tennis was getting in the way and it was sucking the life out of him.

A cherished memory

Pushed by his tennis-loving father Erik Schuls, Schuls had a racket in his hand since he was six years old. After starting on a smaller Quick Start net at Gaston Country Club, he graduated to hitting over the real net, something he had long been waiting for. In celebration, his mom, Emily Schuls, made his favorite pesto pasta. 

Schuls won his first state championship at 10 years old and dominated state rankings growing up, representing Forestview High School and competing in club matches. 

While Schuls relished the competition, the joy he found playing with his friends is what he cherished the most; none more so than with his close friend Dillon Gooch. The two played club doubles together for over seven years, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses like the back of their own hand. 

Before heading off to college, Schuls and Gooch made sure to enjoy their last match together at Cary Tennis Park. Underneath their warmup jackets and sweatpants, they matched navy-blue tank tops with the phrase, “Weights Before Dates,” in white block lettering coupled with $4 gold chains from Walmart. Schuls wore a dull orange headband in stark contrast to his bleached hair. The lower half of his outfit featured skin-tight black shorts, rainbow socks and neon blue Adidas tennis shoes. 

They won the title and celebrated by throwing on a new neon green tank top that read “BEAST” across the chest. 

“It was such a funny but awesome moment,” Schuls said. “We honestly stole all the momentum because the other doubles team could not believe what we were wearing.” 

Later on, Schuls waited patiently for one of the four courts to finish before getting his match against Xavier University underway.

By the time Schuls took the court, the scoreboard read 3-3. In the race to four points, Schuls’ match would decide the winner.

After losing set one of the best-of-three in a tiebreaker and going down 5-3 in the second set, a fire lit inside Schuls. He battled back to win the second set and set up a winner-take-all third set.

Schuls was down three match points in the final set and his legs weak from sprinting all over the concrete floor. He aggressively pounded winning shots with no fear, many grazing the baseline and often hitting the corners, with him finally clinching the match in a final set tiebreaker. In a frenzy, the entire team mobbed Schuls on the court, similar to a hitter walking off a baseball game. 

For a moment, it was fun again. It was his moment. 

The burnout begins

For Schuls, the burnout ignited shortly after he stepped foot on Villanova’s campus in the fall of 2018. He immediately had a schedule and routine that he would follow for a full year.

6 a.m. workouts. Class. Practice in the afternoon. Lifting. Late-night labs. Homework. Sleep. 


Schuls’ entire perception of practice changed. Fun practices he remembered in high school turned into tiring, lethargic afternoons; with sweat pouring down each player’s face and no smiles to be seen. 

Zero goofing off.

Burnout for collegiate athletes is extremely common. Many associate it with physical and mental exhaustion; others see it as a lack of motivation. 

While outsiders desire the popularity, financial benefits and talent that comes with being a collegiate athlete, they often overlook the lack of balance in an athlete’s typical college life. The sport becomes an occupation, leaving room for struggles in the classroom and a lack of social life off of the court. 

Most Division-1 athletic teams do not accept athletes who are STEM majors as labs tend to interfere with team activities. Villanova gave Schuls the unique opportunity to help him as the only player to study pre-med on the team.

“My coach worked with the school to get me labs that did not affect my tennis schedule,” Schuls said. “It was one of the main reasons I chose to go to Villanova.”

Schuls tennis requirements meant his nights carried over into the library and chemistry labs. He consistently studied late at night and never felt up to date.

Schuls rescheduled exams midweek in preparation for the weekly matches. It made him further behind. He had no time or chance to be successful, especially in his field.

Finding a balance 

In March, Emily and one of her close friends attended one of the four matches she got to see in person. They both could immediately sense her son’s frustration and lack of motivation.

“This is not the same kid anymore,” the friend said to Emily.

And it was true. His usual bright smile had vanished. 

He had academic goals. He wanted to be social. He wanted balance. Tennis was not fun anymore.

His win against Xavier flashed in his mind. He felt he had already had his big moment, that another one was inconceivable. 

He shared frequent calls with Erik and Emily, yearning for change, upset about constantly missing class and wearing his body down.

At the end of freshman year, the tennis chapter closed and his new life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill started.

UNC-CH was the only school Schuls applied to out of high school. Hopeful of a medical future and with friends attending, it seemed like the perfect fit, until Villanova offered.

Schuls called his tennis buddy Luke Townsend on the UNC club tennis team, curious about what they had to offer. Townsend gave him the rundown.

Optional practices.

Full social freedom.

Great competition.

The balance Schuls had wanted.

Ready to graduate in December of 2022, Schuls could not be happier. He has represented the club tennis team and played throughout the year in tournaments on his own time. He also joined the Sigma Nu Fraternity, fostering a new group of friends and allowing him to finally have fun again. Now, he’s decided to go pre-dental and has applied to multiple dental schools across the nation. 

“I have all I want here,” Schuls said. “I found the balance I had been searching for all along.”

Edited by Ryan Mills and Macon Porterfield