By Frankie Corrado
Michael Dau ’58, who was inducted into the Illinois Handball Association Hall of Fame in 2017, celebrated the 50th year of Forester handball after starting the program in 1968.
Dau began playing handball in 1958. “I played extensively while I was in the Marine Corps. Once I got out after my half-hearted try at Hollywood, I turned around and joined the YMCA and they had some of the best players in the country playing, and slowly but surely my game started to improve,” Dau said.
“I really didn’t begin to play what I call ‘quality handball’ until I was 30 or 31 years old. Then I got better and better. Once I got to the Masters, I was a more than an above-average player.”
The culmination of Dau’s handball career occurred when he and his partner went to the finals of the Masters Doubles, even though he had injured his arm two years prior.
Dau began working for the College in 1962, left for a year, and then came back in 1964 to begin a steady career in Forester Athletics. He was the football and baseball coach before initiating the handball program.
He read about intercollegiate handball in the USHA Handball magazine and went to the athletic director of the College when they were first designing the sports and recreation building. Dau asked if he would include handball courts. An old handball player himself, he said he would.
“I told him I would try my best to put together a handball program and the rest was history,” Dau said. After the courts were built, Dau went out to recruit a couple of players for the program.
“I recruited two excellent players out in New York City and it has grown since,” he said. Today, the Forester program accepts any number of male and female players—even if they never played handball—who have the athleticism and potential to continue the tradition of excellence.
Initially, the handball program began with only four male players. The College won their first Intercollegiate National handball title in 1971.
“It was a co-championship with the University of Texas,” Dau said, “because we ended up with the same amount of points.” With the alteration of USHA rules over the years, the intercollegiate tournament now takes the top six players’ points to determine a men’s title, a women’s title, and a combined title for each division. Lake Forest College is currently a Division I handball team.
“The structure of the program was much different back then. You had to have an A player, a B player, and a doubles team. The doubles team couldn’t be either an A or B player. So the team was only made up of four at the time,” Dau said.
Up until 1980, the Forester handball program consisted only of men. “I happened to have a couple of girls in school who played handball as a result of playing with their fathers,” Dau said. “Both of them were from Lake Forest and so they came to me and asked if there was a way to be in the program. I said ‘absolutely.’”
Shortly after Dau convinced more women to play, handball became a co-ed program. A large contribution to the program’s success over the decades is due to Dau’s rigorous recruitment and some outside help, initially.
Once he recruited the two men’s players from New York, Dau gained a network of supporters. As the program grew, other people around the country helped the recruiting process.
“There was an attorney out in L.A. that turned around and recommended players over the years. I probably had six or eight of his former protégés.” Dau also conducts junior and senior handball camps that elicit names for further recruitment. In addition, he annually attends the National Junior Handball tournament.
“I introduce myself to promising young players and their families and try to encourage an interest in Lake Forest College,” he said.
In February, Lake Forest College took home the 2018 Men’s National title and the 2nd place Combined Team title. The men’s 2018 first-place championship is the College’s 51st National Championship in 50 years.
“I thought we had a good chance for second or third place for the men,” Dau said. “For the women, I thought we were probably going to be third or fourth after taking a look at the talent we had and evaluating the talent that Missouri State and Mankato State had.
“I thought I was being honest with myself and I never, ever could have predicted that we would achieve what we did.”
During the 2018 Intercollegiate Championship, five out of 11 Foresters on the men’s team made it into the Top 16 of the Open Division, which exceeded Dau’s expectations entirely.
“My hat goes off to two of those five players: Carter Kounovsky ’18 and Max Roberts ’18. I never envisioned them getting to that point. They played their hearts out and that made it possible to win,” Dau said.
“Our women also played very well. I didn’t think they would score enough points to give us a second place title with the men’s points in the Combined. Again, I take my hat off to them.”
During the tournament, Ricardo Palma ’18 dropped out of the Open Division due to an injury, which put a large dent in the Forester’s potential to win.
“The mathematics were not in our favor and we had to rely on a player from another team beating a Missouri State player and our number one player, Juan Canales [’18], to win the Open Singles in order for that to happen.”
The Foresters were fortunate enough to win by the smallest of margins—one point, which is the closest win in the history of Intercollegiate Handball competition. The anxiety could not have been higher as everyone watched Canales take the title in the tiebreaker.
“It was the most heart-wrenching experience in all the 50 years of competitive handball at Lake Forest College,” Dau said. “Everything kind of fell in our favor and we were very fortunate.”
Dau believes his greatest accomplishment as a handball coach for the past 50 years was the joy of being with young people and watching them grow, both academically and athletically. He loves seeing his players graduate and become good parents, be productive in the community, and watch them continue to play handball.
“It’s a game like no other,” he said. “For a beginner, to elevate their skill level to an open or near open player, takes one heck of a commitment. The game is all about angles, and learning how to deal with those angles is not an easy accomplishment.”
Dau can’t pick one favorite moment in all his years of coaching handball, because every moment has been a favorable experience for him.
“People ask me who my best players were and I put them all together,” he said. “I have had incredible players through the years and I refuse to select one as better than the other.”
Dau never thought he would coach for as long as he has, nor for the program to be as successful as it has been. “Essentially, handball created a maxim Tradition of Excellence, which I created around 25 years ago.”
While every student who played for Dau learned a great deal from him, he learned from them, as well. “My kids taught me a lot,” he said.
“I have learned about angles and percentages, all because I have observed them play for the last 50 years. They have been part of my education and that never stops.”
Frankie Corrado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org