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Baltic Handball League
First weekend brings all Baltic teams into action
Although, the 2018/19 Baltic Handball League season started early with two games played in mid-September, the first full weekend is ahead. And it will strictly involve only teams from Baltic States with all nine of them joining the action. Except for HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper, all others will make their season debuts in the BHL.
Little less than two weeks ago the first two games were played, when title-holder Cocks Riihimäki defeated Kehra 40:23 and ZTR Zaporozhye beat SKA Minsk 32:26. Both games were played in Group A, which by the new system introduced this season, is the higher-ranked and from where five of the six teams will advance.
Kehra seeing the long trip as a positive experience
Group A will resume with two matches this weekend, both involving HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper. The Estonian league runner-up and former BHL winner will travel first to Klaipeda to play the Lithuanian champion Dragunas on Saturday and will then have a long trip to Põlva to meet the local rival Serviti.
"It is a long weekend and involves a lot of travelling on the bus, but we are taking it as a positive experience," said Kehra's head coach Kaupo Liiva. "It gives us a chance to have the team together for the whole weekend and possibly make it more united. We have set ourselves a target to qualify from the group, so we are going for points. How many and from which games, it remains to be seen."
Kehra has been playing Põlva's teams in recent weeks, as they drew 26:26 (Uvis Strazdinš 8 goals) with Serviti and on Tuesday beat Estonian champion's reserve team Coop 28:27 (4 players with 4 goals) in the domestic league. "Dragunas is always very strong at home, so it will be a difficult match and Serviti we played already, plus we meet them next week in Estonian Cup," added Liiva.
Arturas Juškenas: our matches against Kehra are crucial
Dragunas and Kehra also met last season and both teams recorded home wins. It was exactly the same in two previous seasons before that and in last seven years the teams have showed they are close – Kehra has eight wins compared to Dragunas' five with two matches ending in a draw.
Lithuanian champion started their domestic title defence on Wednesday with a clear 39:23 win over KKSC-RSSC-Grifas Panevežys (Laurynas Simonavičius and Gabrielijus Virbauskas 7). Despite the win, head coach Arturas Juškenas admits the team is not in very good shape at this moment.
"We lost our key left-back Lukas Vanagas before the season with a serious knee injury and Karolis Stropus – who returned from Iceland – has not yet been able to replace him. And in general I expect to see much better handball from our players," said Juškenas, who also lost right-winger Laurynas Palevičius to AEK Athens and goalkeeper Benas Vaicekauskas to SG Pirna/Heidenau, replacing the latter with Ukrainian Maxym Voliuvach.
"Despite the set-backs, we are going to fight and the first match on Saturday is immediately very important. I believe in Group A four teams are perhaps too strong for us, so to finish at least fifth, our matches with Kehra are crucial. Especially the first one, which we play at home," explained Juškenas.
Latvian champion Tenax is aiming high
Group B has a straight-forward weekend – two Estonian teams are visiting Latvia and the Lithuanian sides in the group will play against eachother. The only Latvian team reaching the quarter-finals last season was domestic champion and cup-winner ZRHK Tenax Dobele. They have started the league well, having four wins out of four games. Last Sunday Tenax beat ASK/LSPA Riga 33:23 (Nils Kreicbergs 11).
"I think we are ready for the new challenge playing in reformed BHL. The new system promises much tighter matches and I believe the Group B will be very, very interesting. Our goals do not change, we would like to reach the play-offs, which means finishing in the top two of the group," assured Veršakovs.
Two key players left Tenax in the summer, as international left-back Austris Tuminskis joined German 2nd Bundesliga side EHV Aue and Emils Kurzemnieks moved to UMF Afturelding of Iceland. "Otherwise we have the same team, plus Ansis Bilkštis has returned. The players are fit and ready, so I expect good handball, as well as good results from this weekend, especially as we are playing at home," said Veršakovs.
Interesting Lithuanian derby in Kaunas
The Estonian teams visiting Latvia have had mixed feelings in recent domestic matches. HC Tallinn has three wins out of three and is top of the table, while significantly weakened Viljandi HC has so far won only one game and lost to Serviti on Wednesday by 34:14 with 15-year-old Aleksander Pertelson being their top scorer with four goals.
Celtnieks Riga has suffered one loss, in the opening round of the Latvian league, but on Sunday they defeated HK Vainode by 37:25 (Artis Kurmens 11). Celtnieks have strengthened the team considerably in mid-season, bringing in left-back Kurmens from HK Ogre/Miandum and adding former Russian champion right-winger Vladislav Koshman to their side.
Sunday will also produce a very interesting Lithuanian-derby in Kaunas, as Granitas-Karys hosts VHC Šviesa Vilnius. Not only do the teams play in the same domestic league, in two weeks time they will meet in the EHF Challenge Cup first qualifying round! And Šviesa was the team that surprised Granitas-Karys in the semi-finals of the Lithuanian league last season, advancing to the finals with 2-1 win.
Granitas-Karys has suffered some serious losses in the summer, as Lithuanian international left-winger Mindaugas Urbonas joined HC Spartak Moskva and one of their main scoring machines Vaidas Drevinskas moved to local rivals HC Vilnius. In the domestic league both Granitas and Šviesa have started with two wins out of two matches.
On photo: Celtnieks Riga have strengthened their side with experienced Artis Kurmens. (Photo: Celtnieks).