Northshore Handball Tournament
August 20-21, 2021
Downtown YMCA, Duluth, MN
Much boded unwell going into this year's Northshore Handball Tournament: returning threats of COVID-19 & the restrictions it entails, a stubborn heat wave & drought, Northland wildfires, failed attempts to live stream on YouTube, and the perennial struggle to find competitors without scheduling conflicts & other preventive misfortunes, to name a few. Participants filed in to meet an exceptionally hot & humid Duluth, but cooler temps, a full & strong draw, and long-due 4-wall revelry were in sight. Many fresh faces were in attendance and it was the first year to feature players from outside of Minnesota, with two other states represented.
The first round was held on Friday with Ryan Pesch (Saint Paul), Ray Ure (Des Plaines, IL), Quinn Foley (Woodbury), and Brian Burke (Mendota Heights) advancing to the semis. Facing a strengthened field of players, two-time runner-up Mat Langhorst (Saint Paul) was denied a third chance at the title right out of the gate, falling to Burke in straight games.
On Saturday, Langhorst and John Ayers (Charles City, IA; age 53) advanced to the consolation championship, each in straight games. Ayers came out strong against Langhorst, taking the first game 21-7. But the higher-seeded Langhorst was able to regroup, fight to keep his head just above Ayers' tide for the remainder of the match, and claim a slim victory: 7-21,21-17,11-8.
In the semifinals, Minnesota's top-ranked Pesch would need to shake off some rust against a crafty and focused Burke, who held Pesch to just 10 points in the first game. The match remained too close for Pesch's comfort as Burke would not waver, but in the end Pesch was able to squeak by his inspired opponent to earn a shot at the title (10-21,21-15,11-9). In the other semifinal, Ure would keep a hard-fighting Foley at bay and exact revenge on a 2019 Gopher Classic upset (21-12,21-16).
In the 3rd place match, Burke still had reserves in the tank after his near miss against Pesch, taking 2020 champion Foley by surprise and winning the first game 21-12. Foley looked like he would even things up with a large lead deep into the second game, but Burke surged to 21 points with Foley, stuck at 18, becoming another casualty to this year's heavier competition.
The Northshore would reach its greatest ever heights in this year's championship. While the prodigious form and fitness of Junior National Champion Ray Ure would give him game 1 with relative ease (21-8), there was a sense the experienced and tenacious Ryan Pesch would not let that trend continue. Dialed-up determination and an adjusted strategy would keep Pesch's chances at the title in reach as he grinded to a game 2 victory (21-14). Ure responded to the elevated challenge, forcing the tiebreaker to inch along in a dead heat. A short breakaway for the last few points would see Ure forever etch his name among the Northland's champions (11-7). The match was a rare spectacle and a welcome thrill to be present for.
The awards banquet followed at Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub with all contenders and their guests in attendance. Awards included prize money and woodcraft medallions for the top 5 finishers.
The event is catching steam as a fixture in the Minnesota tournament landscape, and everyone is looking forward to the privilege of next year. The seeds of a vibrant handball future in Duluth are also being planted, with even the media taking notice. (See Fox21's coverage here: https://www.fox21online.com/2021/08/20/north-shore-handball-tournament-is-back/. The event will also be featured in WDIO's Up North series, airing Aug. 25th: https://www.wdio.com/upnorth/.)
Special thanks begin with Steve Johnson and Mantle Buzz, Inc. for providing the event's first line of shirts at great quality but no cost. Lodging host Alva Djerf provided an excellent spaghetti dinner for a Friday night social gathering. Other support and volunteering efforts would help to turn this 3rd installment into the best yet. (See the list of supporters below.)
For more, including video footage, check out the Discussion tab on the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/572939947426030.