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New to the sport, Hartung thrives quickly in South Point event

Until three weeks ago, Patrick Hartung had never heard of team handball.

Most of his friends and classmates are still in the dark when it comes to the sport, which is popular mostly in Europe.

“Around school, people are like, ‘What’s handball?’ ” said Hartung, a senior at Sandy Valley High School. “I’ve been explaining it to them as much as I can.”

He’ll have a new story to share after scoring a goal for the Las Vegas Scorpions on Friday in the team’s first game at the U.S. national team handball championships at the South Point.

John Ryan, president of the startup club, is a friend of Hartung’s father and had seen Patrick play basketball. Needing extra players, Ryan asked whether he would be interested in joining the squad.

“(My dad and I) watched a couple of YouTube videos, and I was like, ‘That looks pretty cool,’ so I figured I’d give it a try,” Hartung said.

Though only a reserve with the Scorpions, Hartung is able to incorporate some of the skills that helped him lead Sandy Valley’s basketball team in scoring and rebounding.

Team handball, an Olympic sport since 1972, combines elements of several sports. It resembles a mixture of basketball and soccer, or, as one player described it, “Water polo without the water.”

Hartung joined the team, along with his brothers Brien and Joe, in time to get two practices in before the tournament.

They are the only players on the team born in the U.S., where the sport is still struggling to gain a foothold. The rest of the players have come to Las Vegas from all over the globe.

The goalie is from Croatia. The backcourt features a Jordanian and a Brazilian. The coach is from Germany, and the team has several Cubans.

The captain, 28-year-old Raul Hernandez, grew up in Mexico City and played for the Mexican national team for several years. A knee injury derailed his career just before he was set to begin playing for an elite professional team in Spain.

Then 22, Hernandez said he felt lost without the game in his life.

“It was a hard time for me. My life was handball. I didn’t have a normal life (as a) teenager,” he said. “I had no friends because my friends were on the team. I was depressed.”

He came to Las Vegas for a fresh start, first working at a check-cashing business, then as a loan officer and now as a security guard at Encore Beach Club. He figured his team handball days were behind him, but he participated in a few tournaments in California and got the itch again.

Hernandez stumbled across a Facebook page for the Scorpions last month and jumped at the opportunity to compete.

“It felt awesome,” he said after Las Vegas opened with a 28-15 victory over a team from Salt Lake City. “I felt like a rookie again. I love playing handball, and I was happy to be able to do it again, especially here in Vegas, my town.”

The team had only five full practices together to prepare for the tournament, in which it is one of 13 teams in the Men’s Open division. After the first day, the Scorpions are 2-0. They will play Seattle Handball Club for the Pool D title at 8 a.m. today, then enter bracket play.

The tournament ends Sunday, with Men’s and Women’s Elite divisions also competing.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509.

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