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News / A proper start to the 2017/18 BHL season!
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A proper start to the 2017/18 BHL season!
Baltic Handball League's 2017/18 season starts properly in the coming weekend after only one match was played two weeks ago. A total of 9 games will be played across three Baltic States with ten out of twelve clubs in action.
Title-holder Cocks Riihimäki will not play this weekend, but last season's runner-up ZTR Zaporozhye and bronze-medallist SKA Minsk both kick-off their seasons in Group B, visiting Celtnieks Riga and Granitas-Karys Kaunas respectively over the two days.
Runner-up ZTR wants to do better
Ukrainian league runner-up ZTR had their debut season last year and brought both a new nation and new level to the competition. 1983 EHF Cup winning side has not had the best start to the season so far. They were kicked out of EHF Cup by HC Kriens-Luzern and had to settle to two draws in the Ukrainian championship. On Wednesday, ZTR beat ZTR-Burevestnik 30-21 (Maksym Karamyshev 8 goals).
"Our start to the season was not perfect, but I hope the little crisis is behind us and we can only become stronger," commented ZTR's head coach Vitaliy Nat. "Our squad has remained basically unchanged. Only playmaker Denys Isanchuk will miss the trip to the Baltics after breaking two ribs in Switzerland."
As usual, ZTR is setting the goals as high as possible. "We finished second in our debut season and would like to do better this time," confirms Nat. "Baltic League is extremely important for our club and we have waited impatiently for the games to begin. We have motivation and desire to win every game in this competition."
After Latvian title-win, Celtnieks turns focus on BHL
ZTR's first opponent will be Celtnieks Riga. The teams met last season in group stage with ZTR winning the first match 31-24, but the second match was later awarded to the Latvians by 10-0 due to ZTR using an unregistered player. Celtnieks finished bottom of their group and failed to qualify to the quarter-finals.
But Celtnieks used the experience from BHL in the domestic league and to a surprise of many beat ZRHK Tenax Dobele in the final series by 3-0, being crowned as Latvian champions! On Wednesday, Celtnieks claimed their second win of the new domestic season by beating Jurmalas Sports 26-22 (Lauris Eglitis 6).
"We have missed the Baltic League, so it's good to return," said Celtnieks' team director Normunds Blome. "After winning the domestic title last season we are now planning to concentrate more on BHL and make our best efforts to get better results," added Blome.
"Obviously ZTR and SKA are the two strongest teams in our group and it's not easy to start against them, but we are going to fight," claimed Blome. "Last season we lost by big margin, so first goal is to cut that margin down. I believe we have become stronger," added Blome, who has signed couple of players from Jurmalas Sports and retained the key players. This week Celtnieks also welcomed back from injury the goalkeeping hero of the domestic finals and Latvian national team, Raitis Purinš.
Two former European cup winners meet in Kaunas
SKA Minsk visits Celtnieks on Sunday and the day before play Granitas-Karys in Kaunas. SKA finished third in BHL last season and second in the domestic league. Three-time BHL champions have started the season well and on Wednesday managed to held EHF Champions League team and Belarus champion BGK Meshkov Brest to a 34-34 draw (Uladzislau Kulesh 10).
After finishing third in Lithuanian league last season, Granitas-Karys has started the new domestic campaign with two very comfortable wins. On Wednesday, they beat Ula Varena 43-20 (Mindaugas Urbonas 7).
Granitas-Karys – another former EHF Cup winner (1987) – played ZTR in the BHL quarter-finals in March and lost in both legs. Curiously, despite being "old-timers" in the Baltic League, SKA and Granitas-Karys last played each other back in 2012/13 season! And then the Lithuanians managed to beat SKA at home 27-26, before losing in Minsk 20-45.
HC Tallinn making a BHL debut with Jüri Lepp returning
In the final match of the weekend, we will witness a debut in BHL. HC Tallinn is the latest newcomer of the Baltic League, taking the number of Estonian clubs to a record-breaking four! The debut will also bring BHL to Tallinn after a very long absence, as HC Tallinn will host Serviti Põlva on Sunday in the famous and recently reconstructed Kalev Sports Hall.
HC Tallinn is also a newcomer to the Estonian Premier League and have started with one win and one defeat. On Thursday, they lost to another newcomer Coop Põlva 29-34 (Marko Slastinovski 8). The latter is one of the key summer signings from HC Kehra, the other being Robin Oberg from HC Viimsi/Tööriistamarket.
While making a debut as a club, the BHL is definitely nothing new to their coach. Jüri Lepp celebrated his 59th birthday on Monday and will return after a few years absence. Lepp has won the BHL multiple times with HC Kehra and has vast experience from various coaching positions, including being Estonian national coach.
"Baltic league is a perfect tournament for clubs in this region," said Lepp. "Viljandi HC is a good example, as I believe they have developed very well thanks to BHL matches. In my opinion, the BHL has never been stronger than this season. For our new club, it will be a year for development, hopefully results will come in few years time."
Viljandi HC lost 171 BHL goals with three key players leaving
Turning focus to Group A, where only four teams will be in action this weekend with Viljandi HC and ZRHK Tenax Dobele hosting two Lithuanian sides over the two days. Viljandi HC finished third in Estonian league and were elminated in the BHL quarter-finals by the eventual champions Cocks Riihimäki.
At home, Viljandi has started with four wins in the league and cup. On Wednesday, they beat SK Tapa 36-28 (Robert Lõpp 15), but have lost three key players to foreign clubs in mid-season, as Ott Varik, Sten Maasalu and Kristo Voika all left. The trio contributed 171 goals to Viljandi's BHL campaign, so it is a big loss.
Viljandi has signed Ukrainian playmaker Volodymyr Maslak, who has BHL experience with Celtnieks and last played in the Czech league. "We needed replacement for Voika, plus we are still looking for possible new players. But the first goal remains the same – to qualify to the quarter-finals," commented Viljandi's head coach Marko Koks.
Viljandi has never played VHC Šviesa Vilnius before in BHL, but have met Dragunas Klaipeda several times, including beating them at home before losing away in last season's group stage. Dragunas were crowned Lithuanian champions in May and won their first league match on Wednesday, beating KTU Kaunas 41-21 (three players 6 goals).
Arturas Juškenas sets the goals high for Dragunas
However, Dragunas was knocked out of EHF Cup by Croatian side RK Dubrava by the narrowest of margins (71-72). "It was painful, but these games came too early in the season for us. We can now concentrate on Baltic League, where we definitely want to do better than last season," assures Arturas Juškenas, the head coach of Dragunas.
"We have set our aim high – to finish second in the group and to reach the Final Four!" added Juškenas. "We have not been weakened, but have we become stronger remains to be seen." Dragunas have brought back international right-back Laurynas Palevičius from Germany and signed young Lukas Vanagas, about whom Juškenas says: "He has great potential to become a Mait Patrail-style player."
Dragunas' first opponent this season will be ZRHK Tenax Dobele, who they have not met for two seasons, but have a great record before that – 8 wins out of 9 matches in previous 6 BHL seasons, including in the Baltic Challenge League final in 2015. Tenax finished second in the Latvian league last season, but are currently top with three wins, including beating MSG/LAT on Wednesday by 41-28 (Emils Kurzemnieks 9).
VHC Šviesa Vilnius' success in BHL goes back many years, but they did finish third in 2011/12. Last season Šviesa failed to qualify to the quarter-finals and finished fourth in domestic league. New season started with two wins, the last one on Tuesday over SM Dubysa-Gubernija Šiauliai by 27-20 (Valdas Drabavičius 9).
Full match schedule for the weekend can be seen here: http://www.baltichandball.net/calendar