By Warren Rappleyea
A team that included several current and former Old Bridge High School students traveled to Mexico City last week for the Pan American Tchoukball Games and returned home July 30 after winning four of six matches.
“We really only started playing a few years ago and most of the teams at the tournament have been playing the game since the early 2000s,” said Rich Torok, a physical education teacher at the high school who helped put together the team. “We went with the expectation of learning a lot from experienced teams. We clearly exceeded our expectations.”
Torok’s contingent, which also included five players from Massachusetts, was the lone representative of the United States at the tournament. Along the way, they downed 13th-ranked Uruguay and 20th-ranked Argentina and lost a close match to 15th-ranked Colombia. During the latter match, the crowd, consisting of several thousand spectators, took up the cause of the underdogs and began chanting “USA, USA.”
“It was a very cool and very surreal experience to have a bunch of foreigners chanting USA,” Torok said. “That was a real highlight for us.”
Local members of the team included Torok, Andre Triolo-Carras, Reynard Gasavage, Brandon Berasin, Jorawar Singh and Tyler Vavrence.
Tchoukball was invented in Switzerland and was actually designed to minimize injuries, Torok said. The game combines elements of handball, volleyball and squash, noted Torok, who introduced the game to his students in 2013 and has worked diligently ever since to promote and grow the sport locally.
Games consist of three, 15-minute periods with each team fielding seven players. Once a team has possession of the ball, it is permitted to make three passes before shooting. Players can take three steps while holding the ball, but they cannot hold the ball for more than three seconds. To score, a shot must hit a 3-by-3-foot trampoline-like goal and then the ball must hit the ground.
Defense is played more positionally than aggressively as defenders look to outsmart the attacking team and force low-percentage shots. In addition, a defender can catch the ball before it hits the ground to prevent a goal.
While in the process of looking for different things to do in his class, Torok discovered tchoukball on YouTube back in 2012. His students took to it quickly and soon regular games were scheduled on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings.
Torok and Steve Abreu, who played in Mexico City and who heads up a team in Boston, got together to form the United States Tchoukball Association (USTBA) to help grow the sport. The USTBA also holds a national championship, which Old Bridge has won for two straight years. This year’s event is set for Sept. 11.
Torok noted that tchoukball is a popular sport in countries such as Brazil, China, the Czech Republic, India, Italy, the United Kingdom and much of Asia. In China and Singapore, it’s a varsity sport in high schools.
In the U.S., however, the game has grown slowly. But Torok is hoping to change that.
“Ten years ago, Singapore started with a [physical education] teacher and 40 students. Now it’s a varsity and university sport, and Singapore’s team is ranked second in the world,” he said.
Torok is always looking for new players. Anyone interested can come to the high school on Sunday mornings through August at 10 a.m. or contact Torok at firstname.lastname@example.org.