Just what is Fistball anyway?

Tue, Jul 19

JACKSON, Wisc. -- Up in the land of cheeseheads, bratwurst and fish fry the locals have a keen taste for something that hits even harder and feels crisper than a locally-brewed Wisconsin IPA.

All because of an ancient, imported game that is starting to take hold. Fistball, which looks like volleyball with no net (an orange band six feet off the ground does the job) makes spectators want to ask, "Did you make this game up?"

But no joke, this a serious, speedy sport played in Europe and Brazil, with a small, fervent following in the United States. The USA national team will play in the International Fistball Association World Cup in Austria beginning Aug. 7.

Fistball is made up of two five-a-side teams, pummeling a ball for two 12-minute halves on a 50- by 20-meter field, half the size of an FA regulation soccer pitch. Balls can bounce once between hits, up to three times per possession, as each team's aim is to put it across the rope so the opponent fails to return.

Defensive player David Kleist, 26, puts it a different way. "You take volleyball and merge it with tennis. But on grass, like at Wimbledon."

Whether a set, a spike or a pick, players play closed-fist at all times. And unlike both volleyball and tennis, you don't want to serve. Teams gain points for each successful strike until time runs out.

Mat Ogin, the star 6-foot-7 striker, was a disenchanted collegiate volleyball player who discovered fistball during a late-night internet search.

"I emailed the Wisconsin folks about a fictional team I had so I could enter the tournament," says Ogin. After cramming a "lifetime of experience into a summer" many thought him a natural.

US Fistball Association president Jim Blank says that the game was brought over by German immigrants, and that German-Americans organized leagues in Wisconsin in the 1950s and '60s. The game also cropped up outside of Philadelphia at the Phoenix Sports Club about 40 years ago.

If the US team can break into the top six (out of 12 teams at the World Cup), it will get a free pass into the annual World Games, fistball's elite level.