Athletic achievement ‘runs’ in the family
By Jake Green
In 1953, Dave Sandler ran 100 meters in 10.9 seconds, good enough for first place and a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Sandler, competing for South Africa for the second time in four years, also won gold in the 200-meter dash, cementing his place as the fastest Jewish sprinter in the world. Dave Sandler was no stranger to running; three years earlier he and his brother Sol competed for the South African national team, becoming the first pair of Jewish brothers in history to compete for the South African Springboks at the same time. The Sandler legacy of athletic achievement didn’t end in the 1950s, however, because at the 2022 Maccabi Games, taking place this month, another Sandler will try for glory, albeit in a different sport and for a different country.
Alan Sandler, Dave’s son, lives in Dallas, and he’s in Israel this month as the head Team USA coach for the under 18 (U18) men’s futsal team. The problem? Well, as Alan says, “I’ve never played futsal in my life.” Sandler, however, is unfazed by a surface-level problem like his playing history. “I’ve played soccer, obviously, and once you play soccer you can coach soccer. So, once you coach soccer you can coach futsal.”
Futsal is different from what Americans call soccer, but only slightly. The ball is a fraction smaller; only five total players are allowed on the field at one time; there is no stoppage time; and it’s played indoors with all out-of-bounds rules in place. “Futsal is what professional soccer players play to keep themselves in shape during the offseason,” Sandler says. The game is fast-paced and usually in an air-conditioned gym, so it’s simple to see futsal’s benefits to the world of sport.
The players on Sandler’s team come from across the United States, a broad representation of American Jewry. The first time the team met in person was in early June, a month before athletes arrived in Israel July 3. They all play futsal, but none of them tried out to be a part of the futsal team because there were no futsal tryouts, only soccer tryouts.
Sandler, even though he is the head coach of the U18 men’s futsal team, did not pick any of his athletes. In fact, he wasn’t even present when more than 90 kids showed up to try out for the Team USA soccer team, but Sandler’s friend and longtime assistant coach Barry Waranch was.
Barry Waranch is the assistant coach of the U.S. U18 men’s soccer team, but he has also coached Akiba Yavneh Academy’s soccer team for four of the last five years with Sandler. At the Maccabi tryouts in the summer of 2021, Waranch helped to pick around 20 of the top 95 Jewish soccer players in the country, and then he sent a list of names to Sandler as the picks for the futsal team. Sandler and Waranch have worked together at AYA as head coach and assistant coach, respectively, as well as for Team Dallas soccer team for the annual JCC Maccabi Games..
Ben Rael, a recent graduate of AYA, played soccer for two of his four high school years, for Sandler and Waranch. For his senior year season, Rael wasn’t even going to play. “I wasn’t going to play in 12th grade because I’m mostly a basketball player … and I told that to Alan and he kinda just ‘South-African Grandpa’d’ me into it.” Sandler continued to motivate his players throughout the year, helping the team succeed. As Rael says, the confidence given to the team by Sandler “took us to places we didn’t know we could go.”
While the love his players have for him is heartwarming, Sandler wasn’t known to be easy on his team. “He’d make you run 10 laps if you messed around in practice,” Rael says. However, Sandler can balance out his more serious side with a sweet, fun-to-laugh-with guy you’d want to hang out with. “We just like being with him, it’s half the reason we do soccer.”
Waranch serves as the perfect balance for when Sandler gets serious. Rael alludes to this when describing what happens after Sandler sends his team to run laps: “Barry’s running laps with us and laughing about how mad Alan can get.”
Being the assistant U18 men’s soccer coach isn’t all Waranch has decided to take on this summer. In addition to tryouts, team meetings and practice sessions, Waranch is a co-commissioner in charge of big picture recruitment, fundraising and marketing for the Games. Waranch has been “integrated into the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Maccabi Games,” and he says it’s a well-oiled machine.
One of Waranch’s responsibilities as the Games approach has been to talk to parents, telling them about the benefits their children will have because of the Maccabi Games. “It’s a huge honor. It’s making the national team. I hate to say it looks good on a college application, but it looks great on a college application.” College coaches know what Maccabi is, and about half of the athletes attending have good shots of making it in a professional sports league. While promoting the games and inspiring athletes to attend, Waranch is also not shy about making it known exactly how he plans to win.
“You put the ball into the back of the net and you stop the other team from putting the ball in your net.” Seems simple, but come the beginning of the games in July some of the best amateur athletes from around the globe will compete to win glory for themselves and their countries.
Before the opening ceremonies, there was learning to be done. With a program called Israel Connect, athletes attending the games toured Israel for six days after two days of intensive training. The athletes were exposed to the history of the country; and it is expected that they learned a great deal, especially for those who may not have been able to see Israel before. Waranch says, “Part of the mission of the Games is to expose these kids to Judaism,” and Israel Connect is one of the many ways athletes will get to interact with Israel over the course of the summer.
For many people, the Games are the culmination of a lot of effort and time. Tryouts were a year ago, and with school, practice, college applications, COVID-19 and everything else that has happened over the past year, a few weeks of sports in Israel seems like a welcome escape. For Barry Waranch, July 3 was the end of the buildup and the start of the competition. He wants to win, because this year he gets to bring Jewish kids from his country to compete against other countries.
Alan Sandler has won many times. In Israel, he is coaching a sport he’s never played, with a team full of kids he has only met a handful of times. Like his father, he will be in Israel, and like his father he has a chance of winning gold. Alan Sandler may not win gold in the 100m and 200m sprints, but he can still go down in history as the coach of a championship-worthy team.
To follow the 2022 Maccabi Games, visit maccabiah.com, or follow @maccabiusa on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook