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Michael Stenberg instructs Olivia Nickson in handball while Jacy Johnston (right) and Julia Bounds (left) look on.

It’s a simple sport at its core, requiring no more than a ball, a wall and a couple of players, but from the first bounce handball demands speed, precision and will that rivals any sport. In Hood River, handball has been a staple of the athletic community, having been played by residents for nearly a century.

“Handball has been played the Elks Lodge for a very long time, and before that possibly back to the early 1900s at the Hood River Commerce Center,” said Nick Flores, state chair for Oregon Handball Association.

Originally played as a variation known as “one-wall,” handball developed into its modern form in the 1980s when the Elks Lodge built four-wall courts in response to a growing national interest in racquetball. The handball players in the area transitioned to four-wall handball, the more popular variation of the sport, which allowed them to begin competing against teams from cities such as Portland and Salem. Behind the Hood River community’s interest in handball was a lone family — the Hinmans.

“The Hinmans are a prominent Hood River handball family,” said Flores. “Dale and Hugh Hinman used to be the toughest players in Hood River. When Hugh passed away they started a memorial tournament at the Lodge which has continued to this day. Jennifer Hinman, Dale’s daughter, was the No. 2 player on the women’s pro rankings at one point.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say the Hinmans ran handball in Hood River for decades; the family set up tournaments throughout the year, competed constantly and generated interest throughout the community. The Hinmans are also responsible for roping in another family to the sport, one that has come to embrace the leadership role from the Hinmans.

“In 2011 Jennifer showed up to the Elks Lodge and saw a young man named Michael Stenberg playing racquetball,” said Flores. “She challenged him to a game of handball, which he felt he could win, but of course she destroyed him. This hooked Michael on the sport of handball and he has since recruited his brothers Stephen, Philip, Andrew and Brian, as well as his parents Oscar and Helen.”

In time, the Hinmans passed the torch to the Stenberg family. The Stenberg sons established the Hood River Handball Association in 2015, with Michael and Stephen representing Hood River on the Oregon Handball Association Steering Committee. The Stenbergs started the Hood River Invitational tournament that same year, a June weekend of competition that draws pros and amateurs from around the state. The tournament sponsors a local child in need each year, with donations benefiting the family.

“The sponsoring is the heartbeat of the whole tournament,” said Oscar Stenberg. “The boys came up with the idea themselves. They select families throughout the community who are in need and try to help out as much as they can. This community gave to my son and now they want to give back.”

The Stenbergs continued to expand Hood River Handball in 2018 when Oscar began a handball class at the Elks Lodge with students from Horizon Christian School, where he teaches. Together with Helen, Andrew, Michael and other local players, Oscar instructs the students on handball with the hopes of generating interest in the sport and involvement in the community. His program is sponsored by the World Players of Handball, an Arizona based organization.

“They have donated gloves and balls and goggles, which we truly appreciate,” said Stenberg. “They want to expand handball and their involvement helps us to better equip our players.”

The classes have proven successful so far, with students attending regularly and expressing excitement for upcoming tournaments and the sport in general. Stenberg and Flores remain optimistic about the future of handball in Hood River, and eager to continue with their efforts.

“Just to see the kids play and become more successful is so rewarding,” said Stenberg.

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