Two Haverhill teenagers are bringing a popular European sport to the Merrimack Valley — and they've already won over their entire neighborhood.
For the past two years, George Bonner, 16, and Matthew Bonner, 13, of Russet Hill Road have hosted field handball tournaments for more than 30 of their friends and fellow neighborhood children.
These aren't mere pick-up matches however, as the Bonner brothers personally organize teams and tournament brackets weeks before game day. Rather than giving in to the temptation to always put themselves on the winning team, the Bonners make sure each team has variety of ages, ranging from 7 to 17 years old.
Once the teams are determined, players are encouraged to develop their own jerseys and team names.
George, a Haverhill High junior who is on the swimming and diving team, said he first learned of field handball on his downtime during a practice swim meet.
Part of the Olympics since 1936, handball mixes the rules of soccer and basketball into cohesive sport that encourages defensive goal-keeping and cooperation among teammates to create passes.
George said his efforts to start up an intramural league proved unsuccessful because no teacher could supervise the event. Rather than giving up his hopes of organized competition, George literally took his ball and went home to host his own games.
"It was just kind of fun," he said. "Everyone had a real good time. It just grew and expanded."
The tournaments started with just himself, his brother and a small group of friends. The competitions now include entire families and coed teams.
"This is our entire group of friends," Matthew said. "It wouldn't be fair not to invite all the others."
Emily Lawler, 16, came to the field bearing her team's tie-dye colors and face paint to shade her eyes. She said her all-girls team had been prepping for the battle against the boys all week.
"Every time in gym class they beat us," she said. "Now it's our chance to come back."
Despite the pre-game hype, Emily said the actual competitions are very low-key and a way to pal around with others from the neighborhood.
"It's low pressure," she said. "It's a chance to get together with friends."
Martha Bonner, mother of the Bonner boys, said she doesn't mind having a crowd of kids swarming her back yard for a few days each summer.
"I just love they can have good clean fun," she said. "It's all inclusive."