With just over two minutes remaining in the USA Team Handball Open Division I title game, UNC seniors Aaron Hamm and Ross Whipkey subbed out for a line change.
As the two left the court they glanced up at the scoreboard — 24-15, in favor of the North Carolina men’s team handball club.
The game was in hand, as even the most talented teams in the nation could not overcome such a deficit in so little time. With the realization of a national title on the horizon in his final game donning the UNC logo, Hamm turned to his counterpart.
“We fucking did it,” he said.
A phrase that only somewhat encompasses the trial and defeat endured by North Carolina — or the ‘Showtime Heels’ as they call themselves — en route to knocking off the San Francisco CalHeat in the USATH Open Division I title game, 25-17, on May 15.
The entire school year in the midafternoon on Mondays and Wednesdays, you could find the Showtime Heels in Fetzer Gym practicing for their upcoming season.
With a senior-heavy squad led by club president Whipkey, goalkeeper Jack Moore and Hamm — a member of Team USA handball — this year’s team had one goal in mind.
“We felt that we were the best team in the country and should win nationals,” Whipkey said.
Come early April, the No. 2 Tar Heels sat just one game away from the national title. But costly errors saw UNC slip to No. 3 Ohio State in the semifinals, losing by four points and ending North Carolina’s pursuit of a collegiate national title.
All seemed to be lost, as a postgame filled with cries and emotional hugs would have one assume the season was over.
The US Open at Adrian College in Michigan remained on the schedule for the Showtime Heels, and with their recent defeat, the team initially didn’t even have the mindset of trying to win it all in their final tournament.
“We honestly saw this as a fun trip to get the new guys some more playing time,” Hamm said.
But everything changed when North Carolina lost its second game of pool play to the San Francisco CalHeat.
“Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong,” Whipkey said. “I broke my foot in that game, and a couple other guys got injured too.”
The loss dropped the Tar Heels to second in the tournament standings, forcing UNC to play against Minnesota in a semifinal match just a little over nine hours removed from its morning loss. In a gritty, back-and-forth contest, North Carolina squeaked out a five-point victory, setting up a rematch against San Francisco in the title game.
With Whipkey’s broken foot, Hamm suffering a meniscus strain and other aches and pains felt throughout the team, it was going to take a collective effort for the Showtime Heels to capture the title.
Taking the earlier loss to San Francisco into account, the team’s mindset heading into its final bout was clear.
“You can’t be scared to play against anybody,” Hamm said. “We knew they weren’t a better handball team than us.”
From the jump, North Carolina didn’t back down.
Diving for loose balls, bodying up opposing attackers and mustering high energy both on and off the court, UNC wanted the victory. And, by the tail end of the contest, the Showtime Heels were in command and put the reserves into the game.
“Most of the starters are seniors or juniors,” Whipkey said. “With all of us sitting on the bench, with the lead we had, it really hit us and we got emotional.”
As the game clock struck zero, North Carolina secured the win, and complete elation ensued. As the team celebrated with its USATH Open trophy, ‘Sweet Caroline’ began to blast over the speakers.
Though it’s not the trophy North Carolina aspired to win back at the beginning of the school year, it’s the feeling — especially for the senior class — that this USATH Open title brings that makes it all worth it.
“To walk off the court a national champion in my last game, that’s something special,” Moore said. “It gives me chills just thinking about it and is one of the most special memories of my life.”
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