Ace Wallbanger

Columbia River senior develops passion, talent for handball

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

Updated: January 29, 2013, 10:06 AM

 

Jordan Taylor's top results

• 2012 17 and under A-bracket junior national champion

• 2012 17 and under open doubles runner-up

• 2012 Men's B-bracket Pacific Northwest champion

• 2011 17 and under B-bracket junior national champion

• 2011 Men's C-bracket Pacific Northwest champion

Jordan Taylor and a friend took a few minutes to watch some men play handball when one of the men on the court interrupted the game and went to chat with the boys.

"I could tell by the look on Jordan's face that he was really curious," Brian Poppenroth said, remembering that chance encounter more than five years ago at Club Green Meadows.

Poppenroth invited Jordan to give the sport a try then and there.

Taylor remembers declining the invitation. "But I guess he didn't hear me."

Within minutes, he was on the court, being taught his first lesson. And Taylor's competitive streak took over.

"An old man beating me 21-0 didn't sit well," Taylor said, explaining how he became intrigued with the sport.

It has been more than five years since Poppenroth, who has been playing the sport for six decades, taught Taylor that first lesson. Taylor is now a senior at Columbia River. He played high school football, and will play baseball for the Chieftains this spring. But handball is the game where he is making his mark.

Last month in Chicago, Taylor won his second national championship. He won the A-bracket in 17-and-younger singles at the 2012 junior nationals, one rung below the open championship.

"That's pretty big," Mike Steele said. "It puts him in top eight in the country for his age group."

Steele is the president of the United States Handball Association and coach for the handball team at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. And he is one of the coaches who has helped Taylor develop into one of the best young players around.

In addition to his singles success in Chicago, Taylor and a partner reached the open doubles final at the junior nationals. In 2011, Taylor won the B-bracket at the junior nationals, two rungs below open competition.

The first thing Steele noticed about Taylor was the strength of his right arm, a product of many years in baseball. The shoulder strength and hand-eye coordination developed on the baseball diamond translated well to the handball court.

"He's got a real gun for an arm," Steele said.

But it was more than just power that impressed Poppenroth from the start. Though he was only 13, and not particularly big yet, Taylor demonstrated unusual focus and determination from the start.

"There was something special about Jordan," Poppenroth said. "There is a lot of pain with the introduction to the game, and he handled it."

And, Poppenroth said, Taylor was committed to improving from the first day he stepped onto the court.

"Twice a week over a period of three months, he was Johnny on the spot."

Jarrad Krueger, a 31-year-old player from Vancouver who also started playing the game five years ago and has become one of the top players in the region, is now Jordan's primary coach. They both train several days a week at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland.

That dedication is perhaps the most significant reason for Taylor's success.

"He's a level-headed, intelligent kid," Krueger said. "He has a lot of athletic ability. But (success) boils down to discipline. It's playing every week. It's working on the small things."

In a game where the small rubber ball can ricochet around four walls at speeds above 70 mph, there is a lot more to winning than just hitting the ball harder than the opponent. Proper footwork to be in position to make a play on the ball, and developing a strong left hand, have been two of the big challenges, Taylor said.

Unlike racquetball, where a player can use his dominant hand all the time, handball requires a player to use both hands. "Developing my left hand is probably the hardest part of the whole game," Taylor said.

Krueger, Steele and Poppenroth all envision a day when Taylor is competing for national open titles, and is perhaps one of the handful of players on the professional handball circuit.

Pro handball players need regular jobs. Taylor is in the EMT/firefighter cadet program. He plans to go to college β€” likely one with a competitive handball team.

Handball is a club sport at colleges that have teams. Steele hopes Taylor chooses to attend Pacific, but Lake Forest College near Chicago, the national collegiate champion, is interested.

Poppenroth is 68 years old and has been playing since he was 9. He has played alongside Taylor in regional doubles tournaments, and enjoys sharing his passion for the sport with younger players.

In Jordan Taylor, Poppenroth sees a player for whom handball can become more than just a life-enriching game: "I really think in Jordan's case that he has the potential to become a professional."