Every Tuesday and Saturday from April to October, Dan Zimet and Alan Frank meet up with buddies to play handball at Centennial Park in Ellicott City.
The games are friendly competitions among a brotherhood of 25 to 30 men ages 40 to 80, but they're more than that to most of the players.
Zimet, a psychologist, and Frank, a lawyer, have a combined 42 national handball titles, and part of their success is attributable to how they push and test themselves in the Howard County park.
Their goals are winning their age brackets of the U.S. Handball Association Three-Wall Championships held in Toledo, Ohio, in late August each year.
“Everything is about making it to Toledo,” Frank says. “It's the Mecca.”
Their pilgrimages have been quite successful, to say the least.
This year, Zimet won championships in 40-plus singles and 40-plus doubles, his 18th and 19th titles. Frank won his 22nd and 23rd titles, winning 50-plus doubles and partnering with Zimet to win 40-plus doubles. They beat a team from Ohio in the finals, 21-7, 21-3.
“In the 50s [age bracket] is where I belong,” Frank said. “But Dan still wants to play with me even though I don't stay in as good of shape as he does and I'm breaking down.
“We've won seven of the last nine years together, so we do well, but he has to carry a greater percentage of the load every year. He had to get me an acupuncturist just to get me on the court this year.”
The sport is entrenched in their lives. Frank, 51, of Ellicott City, grew up going to indoor courts in Wheaton with his dad. It was there he met Zimet, a little kid running around and playing on the same courts as his father. Usually playing with his dad, uncle and brother, handball was a Zimet family affair.
Playing handball has turned into a lifestyle for Zimet. At 43 years old, he said, “I'm the young guy around here.”
For years, Frank was the king of the courts. He is one of three grand masters in Maryland, meaning he has won at least 10 handball championships.
But another grand master, Zimet, now sits atop the throne. He won a national title in one-wall during the 2010 doubles tournament. In three-wall, he has eight singles titles and seven doubles titles with Frank, in addition to three four-wall doubles titles.
“He's probably the most focused person on the court that I've ever played with,” Frank said. “He plays every single point like it's the last one of the match.”
Zimet says his desire to continue playing comes from the feeling he gets connecting with a perfect handball shot.
“There's almost an intimacy with having direct contact with the ball that handball requires that is a feeling like making a perfect ski turn or connecting with a baseball so solid that you don't even feel it hit the bat,” Zimet said. “To feel completely in control over the play — and you just can't wait to go out and do that again.”
Zimet, a Columbia resident, had the opportunity to become a professional player when in his 20s. He had to choose between that path and entering a doctoral program in psychology. He decided to focus on academics. It's a choice he doesn't regret.
“I wish I could have done both things, but there was just no way to do it,” Zimet said. “Now, in hindsight, a lot of the pro guys from that era, they kind of burned out on handball. … I feel like my motivation is still pretty high.”
Zimet has plenty to keep him motivated. For one, he hates to lose, as seldom as that might occur.
He lost this year to a former professional from New York in the Eastern Nationals, a tournament at Centennial Park that he organizes as Maryland handball commissioner a month before Toledo each year.
“The last thing I want to do is answer questions about why I lost,” Zimet said. “So just the imagination of those conversations keeps me motivated. ... If you're going to beat me, I want you to beat me at my best.”
Perhaps the match that epitomizes Zimet and his competitiveness best was the final of the 2012 USHA three-wall 40-plus singles. His opponent, Andy Schad, a friend and rival from Prattville, Ala., had Zimet on the ropes.
Schad won the first game easily, but Zimet took a 20-3 lead in the second game.
“He came back,” Zimet said of Schad. “He got to 9, he got to 13, he got to 16, he's serving at 19-20, so he scored 16 unanswered points.”
Zimet “finally hit a good shot” to win the second game.
“At this point we're probably at about the 2-hour mark and it was 95 degrees in the middle of the day, just baking hot,” Zimet said.
At 5-all in the tiebreaker to 11, Zimet hit a pass shot that cramped his right calf.
“My foot points straight down and I can't bend my foot and I just fall over,” Zimet said.
“In handball, it's almost impossible when you get a cramp. You're done,” Schad said.
Frank, who was officiating the match, grabbed Zimet's foot and bent it back to position. After calling two timeouts, changing his gloves and swallowing six “endurolytes,” Zimet hobbled back to the court.
“I can barely move,” Zimet said.
After a few good serves, Zimet got to 10-9 and needed only one more point to win the title.
Schad hit a remarkable return shot off a serve and Zimet needed the shot of his life to avoid losing serve on game point.
“I take three steps back, fall over, and roll out the ball with my right hand as I'm hitting the ground, and that's the way that the match ended,” Zimet said.
Said Frank, “I can still see that shot.”
Zimet has defeated Schad in the three-wall championship match three consecutive years.
“He owns in the three-wall courts against me,” Schad said. “He has beat me up several times.”
Zimet has done plenty to help the handball community in Maryland grow.
He took on the role of commissioner 10years ago because he worried about the future of the game if no one filled the job. Players are aging out of the game faster than young people are picking it up.
“I have wanted to create a high school club program in Columbia and I know a number of schools that are willing to participate in it, but that requires a certain level of manpower and it's difficult to get people to commit to doing that. ... It's sad to see,” Zimet said. “The ones that do [stick with handball] really, truly fall in love with the game.”
Said Schad, a military man who has lived in Maryland for about four years total during the past decade: “I think in the Maryland area [Zimet] has had a huge impact. While I was there, he was the one that organized all the tournaments, he was the one that organized meetings and stuff on the web page. He was really the centerpiece of the Maryland — really I'd say the Atlantic Coast-area — handball group. He was the one in charge of that.”
And now there is the personal challenge for Zimet. He wants to continue to win tournaments and avoid losing. He plans to play as long as he is physically able. But first he wants to win at least one of each of the possible national handball titles.
“I've only won half,” Zimet said. “I haven't won one-wall singles. I have never gone to the nationals in four-wall. ... I haven't gone to the national masters singles yet either, which I will probably do this year in Cincinnati in April.”