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Professor Wins Handball Title

Mike Wells wins singles, doubles titles at recent 45-plus Masters Tournament.

2014-08-06
Jim Rueda, Mankato Free Press, 7-6-2014

Mike Wells (at right in picture) admits he thought that perhaps his time had passed.

A longtime practitioner of the sport of handball, the Minnesota State University, Mankato professor had entered numerous national tournaments and never won a singles title. He’d come close, but first place always eluded him.

Late last month he was entered in another national tourney and was not optimistic. Although he had stepped up his training, he tweaked his shoulder about three weeks before the event and was unable to get on the court to actually play during that time.

So what happened when the 47-year-old handball player ventured to Minneapolis to compete in the 45-plus Masters bracket? Well ... he not only won his first singles title but came back with a doubles national championship as well.

“I think those three weeks away from the court may have actually helped,” Wells said. “I was still working out on the treadmill and doing some weight training, but I just felt fresher when I got to the tournament.”

As for wondering if his best chances for a title were in the rearview mirror, he had pretty good reason to be concerned. Also an avid fastpitch softball player, Wells competed for years on the highpowered Junker’s men’s fastpitch team in the 1990s and early 2000s. The team finished second a few times, but the first-place trophy proved elusive.

“It seemed as though we were destined to always be bridesmaids,” Wells said.

In 2002, the Junker’s fastpitch team folded so Wells joined the Kegel Black Knights out of Fargo, N.D. In 2003, that team went won the North American Fastpitch Association’s Open World Series Championship.

“I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I never gave up hope in handball,” Wells said. “If you stick to it and work hard, good things can happen.”

Eight years ago, Wells started a handball club team at Minnesota State Mankato. He’s the head coach and fellow handball enthusiast John Stoffel is the assistant. The team has done well, winning two national Division II titles and was runner-up last year in Division I.

“I think being the coach of that team helped me, too,” Wells said of his recent accomplishments. “You’re always working on fundamentals with the kids so I tried to focus a lot on those during the tournament.”

Wells went to this year’s tournament at the University of Minnesota intending to play doubles with Stoffel. The duo had combined to win the 2002 Class B national title in Michigan and are a fairly cohesive unit.

It didn’t quite go down the way they had hoped, however, as Stoffel tweaked an upper leg injury in his first singles match and had to bow out of the tournament. That left Wells scrambling to find another doubles partner. Eventually, he and Chris Roberts of Illinois opted to join forces.

“Chris was a little bit older (53), but he’s a very good player,” Wells said. “He’s won a number of national titles, and he’s lefthanded. That helps a lot in doubles.”

The tandem reached the finals of the 45-plus Masters Division where they edged William Cervantez (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Joe Berman (Columbia, Md.) by scores of 21-16, 19-21, 11-5.

In singles, Wells was able to capture the title with a 21-12, 21-4 win over James Grota of Rochester. Wells’ father, also an accomplished handball player in his day, was able to watch his son compete because the tournament was so close to home.

“He told me later he thought that was the best he’s seen me play in a long time,” Wells said. “He’s watched me play a lot so he’s probably a pretty good judge.

“Many people don’t realize how physically fit you have to be to get through one of these tournaments. Sometimes the matches take 1:45 or two hours to complete, and it can get to be grind. I sat in an ice bath each night after we were done.”

Stoffel also watched most of Wells’ matches and said later he could see the singles title coming.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he won,” Stoffel said. “I know he trained really hard for this tournament. Once we got up there, and I saw the field I knew he could go all the way.”

Wells had an additional reason to be excited that weekend. His son Zack reached the semifinals of the Junior 11-under singles division before losing to Sean Coughlan of County Clare, Ireland, 21-8, 21-2. Stoffel’s son Nathan reached the finals in the same bracket, losing to Coughlan 21-0, 21-6 in the championship match.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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