BALLSTON SPA — When you speak to Rob Immel about dodgeball, his intensity is palpable. There’s no irony in his voice; he isn’t being coy. He doesn’t see dodgeball as a playground game or the passive-aggressive grudge match it’s famous for in movies about grade school.
He loves dodgeball. He sees it as a sport that combines the most difficult parts of any other sport, and he’s dead serious about it. And now, Immel and three of his New York Empire teammates will be representing the United States in the seventh Dodgeball World Cup in Manchester.
Immel, or “Coach” Immel, as he’s known to ninth- through 12-graders at Ballston Spa High School, has been playing amateur dodgeball for the past 10 years, and he was playing the game recreationally for years before that.
“Dodgeball caters to the true athlete,” he said, putting away arguments for pretty much every other sport. “In baseball, you have to be able to hit or catch, but not really run. Football is mostly strategy. Soccer is all running. Dodgeball takes all the hardest elements and combines everything. Jumping, running, sliding, strategy, communication, teamwork. You have to have it all.”
The game varies in different countries, and Immel says the U.S. team will have to work to match the European style of play, which is much faster with more forward and back movement. But Immel says they have an advantage in the way their team communicates. He hasn’t played with everyone on Team USA, since some of the team members live in other parts of the country, but three of his New York Empire teammates are going, and that’s the advantage. They’ve been playing together for six years.
“We communicate what we are doing and where we are going without even talking,” he said. “We just know each other that well, and that’s the advantage — our connection. If you just have one fast person throwing a ball, that’s not going to do much. But when you have people communicating and working together seamlessly, you can capitalize on whatever weakness the other team has — you win.”
There’s a reason it’s such an intense game. First played in Africa over 200 years ago, dodgeball wasn’t a game at all. It was a life-and-death preparation for battle played with rocks, during which tribesmen would actively try to injure each other in order to bond and weed out the weakest tribesmen. If a teammate went down, the others would surround him and try to fend off the attackers.
An English missionary by the name of Dr. James Carlisle watched this game for some time during his interactions with the tribe, and when he went back to England, he developed a chess-like version played with a leather ball on an open field at the college where he taught, at St. Mary’s College in Norfolk. In 1884, the St. Mary’s players introduced the game to a group from Yale. In that group was Phillip Ferguson, the individual credited with changing the rules to the way we play today. The rules were finally written down in 1905, and popularity grew as colleges all over America played each other. Eventually, American rules became the preferred way to play worldwide.
Immel teaches a dodgeball unit to all of his classes every year, and it’s understandably a favorite.
“They just can’t get enough. They’re begging to play all year,” he said.
Immel’s brand of dodgeball is not a free-for-all. He teaches the kids strategy and keeps everyone in the game and engaged.
“I have a group of 40 11th- and 12-grade girls, and they ask for [dodgeball],” he said. “It’s a favorite activity regardless of athleticism, experience or ability.”
His love for the game is infectious, spreading outside of class to an annual tournament students participate in each March to raise money for charity. The high school tournament had 200 kids in 27 teams playing over two days. This year, the middle school hosted one with 10 teams of eighth graders. “The gym was packed with friends and parents and spectators.”
His team, the New York Empire, is a bunch of 10 players hand-picked by Immel over the years. He met everyone on the team playing the game, many times recruiting them from opposing teams. And with 12 tournaments a year, he has the chance to meet a lot of good players. But how do you get your opponents to come play for you?
It’s easy to see, based on the comments other players leave around the Internet about Empire. It’s not just that they are a good team — and they are. They have been undefeated for the past year and a half, and they play 12 tournaments a year against anywhere from 15 to 35 teams per tournament. They even set a world record for dodgeball, playing 31 hours straight. And when a group from Castleton college broke their record, they came back even harder, setting a new record for the longest marathon playing dodgeball: over 500 games in 43 hours.
But more than how much they win or how long they play, it’s about how they play the game. Their Facebook page is full of good luck wishes to other teams and congrats to the teams that came up with a win.
One commenter posted, “Empire is one of the biggest teams I look up to. If you guys lose you lose, if you win you win, no matter what you always leave happy to be a part of what we have.”
Another player says, “The most inspirational part of Empire is that they are positive on and off the court. They are all smiles and fun win or lose. They aren’t flipping out on refs.”
How other teams play the game is what Coach Immel says he’ll be watching closely in Manchester. As a coach and father of three, Coach Immel knows all too well that he’s being watched, too. By his kids — his 8-year-old daughter thinks he’s famous — by his students, by members of the community. It’s no wonder the community has rallied around the Empire. From Logo Wearhaus in Ballston Spa providing gear, to their training facility in Halfmoon providing them with a place to train and work out, to random people pressing $20 bills into his hand and wishing him good luck around town, Immel says the community support is inspiring.
“People have recognized our past success and are eager to support us on our journey for a gold,” he said.
Join Immel and the rest of his team 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2, 2016, at King’s Tavern in Saratoga Springs to help raise money for their trip to the Dodgeball World Cup in Manchester, April 16-17. There will be trivia, arm speed contests, and asking patrons to wear red, white and blue and bring a $15 donation for the team. Just don’t ask him if he can dodge a wrench.
If you want to watch the Empire play, Planet Dodgeball will be streaming the competition live. Team USA’s first game is against Malaysia at 6 a.m. EST Saturday, April 16.