Mark Ortega, a 1997 graduate of Whetstone and an assistant coach for the U.S. men's national handball team, has made history in the sport.

Last month, he was named coach of a Dutch women's team, HV KRAS/Volendam, replacing interim coach Mark Neeft.

The hiring makes Ortega the first American to be named a head coach of a top-division European handball team. HV KRAS/Volendam is a member of Eredivisie, the top women's league in the Netherlands.

Ortega said he's hopeful that his accomplishment is just the beginning for American coaches and players to advance in the world of handball, which is a niche sport in the U.S. but is very popular throughout Europe.

"I hope it's just a start for U.S. coaches and U.S. players," he said. "For me, it's a hope that the door's opening for more opportunities to come for more coaches in the U.S."

Ortega had been residing in Auburn, Alabama, which is home to the U.S. men's and women's national teams. He currently is in Columbus and has spent the last few weeks talking with his players and making preparations for the 2020-21 season, which begins in September and concludes in mid-spring.

Ortega, who plans to move to the Netherlands with his family in July, said his immediate focus is on recruiting.

"The goal right now is to create a team you can work with," he said.

Ortega, who is learning to speak Dutch but has time to learn the language as the majority of the population in the Netherlands speaks English, said among the key players on his roster right now are center back Bibi Baker, center back/left back Sabrina Van der Mast, right back Pien van der Geest and goalkeepers Marit Huiberts and Nicole Rep.

Ortega competed in gymnastics from age 6 to 16 and tried his hand in a variety of other sports, including basketball, baseball, football, wrestling and track and field.

"I did as much as I could," he said.

Ortega played football in college, walking on at Kent State as a wide receiver. He transferred to Malone College his junior year, receiving a partial scholarship.

Upon graduation, Ortega wanted to get involved in an Olympic sport, and that led him to a career in handball.

"I wanted to represent the U.S., so I sort of picked a sport, and handball was it," he said.

Ortega, who played center back, began his handball career playing for the Miami Sharks from 2004-07. In 2004, he also was selected for the first time to play for the U.S. men's national team in the Pan American Championship in Santiago, Chile.

Ortega went on to play for teams in Spain, Norway, Germany and Egypt. His playing career ended in 2014, when he became an assistant coach for the national team.

sborgna@thisweeknews.com

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