Urged on by a friend, and with nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, basketball player Darlene Branigan walked into the University of California gymnasium six years ago completely unprepared for the Olympic Sports Festival team handball tryout.
Like an outfielder without a glove, she lacked the basics. She didn't have any equipment. She didn't know any of the rules.
The coaches, however, were impressed with her athletic ability and selected her for the West team. Since then, Branigan, 24, started in five consecutive Olympic Sports Festivals. She no longer plays for the Festival team, but she will coach the West team in July at the Festival in the North Carolina cities of Raleigh and Durham.
The Cal West club team that she does play for won its second consecutive California State Championship this season and will compete in the National Team Handball Championships this weekend at Cal State Fullerton.
Branigan played point guard for Cal State Northridge from 1982-84 and is 10th on the school's career scoring list with 704 points. Although she stayed close to the game as coach of the Glendale College women's basketball team the past two seasons, she still had a desire to compete in sports.
"Now it's not like college is over and it's time to play recreation sports," she said. "The glory is not all over with."
Her basketball training helped her make the transition to team handball. The rules of team handball are a mix of basketball and hockey. A player can take three steps before she must dribble or pass the cantaloupe-sized ball. Goals are scored when the ball is thrown past a goalie into a hockey-style net. Some physical contact is allowed, but excessively rough tactics result in a two-minute penalty.
Branigan enjoyed the physical contact a little too much.
"I start leaning on people and holding them," she said. "I don't realize I'm doing it until they finally say something nasty to me."
Branigan's entrance into team handball by happenstance is typical. The game has doubled in popularity since 1983, but experienced players are scarce and most don't play the sport exclusively.
"The skills are common to most American sports, like running, jumping and throwing," said Mike Cavanaugh, executive director of the U.S. Team Handball Federation. "It's easy for a good athlete to make the transition. But we still don't have an experienced player base from which to pick and choose."
Marta Conley, 27, a Cal West teammate of Branigan's, also didn't plan to get involved in the sport. In 1978, the Reseda resident followed a friend to practice. Her attraction to the sport was immediate and lasting.
"The very first time I saw it, I knew it was different from any other sport," Conley said. "It's kind of hot-doggy. It's not as rough as hockey. But it is a very physical game."
As interest in the game has grown, so have the opportunities. Like Branigan's, much of Conley's early efforts were focused on basketball. In 1978, Conley played on the Pierce College basketball team. The same season, she played for the West team in the Olympic Sports Festival, and has been on the team three times since.
Although Conley has focused on team handball for the past nine years, it wasn't until four years ago that she was able to play with regularity. Leagues have been slow to form, and the player pool is still small. California and Colorado are the only states with team championships. But with the help of the California sanctioning body and the Cal West team, a three-team, six-week league was formed in Westlake.
"It's nice to stay in something at a competitive level," Conley said. "It's only been the last four years that I've been able to play on a weekly basis."