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News / Full season starts with nine matches
Baltic Handball League
Full season starts with nine matches
After making little pre-start last Sunday with SKA Minsk beating Dragunas Klaipeda, the 2019/20 Baltic Handball League season seriously kicks off in the coming weekend. Nine matches involving ten teams will be played across three countries – in Tallinn, Põlva, Kehra, Kaunas and Riihimäki.
The opening full weekend brings interesting matches and in the first one on Saturday last year's finalists Cocks Riihimäki and ZTR Zaporozhye will clash in the first BHL match in brand new Cocks Areena. On Sunday, Cocks is hosting the promoted ZRHK Tenax Dobele, while the Latvian champion and ZTR will also visit Serviti in Põlva this weekend.
BHL manager: hopefully new season will be as exciting as last one
"This has probably been the toughest pre-league summer we ever had. The gap between the ambitions and resources of the clubs has widened, but at the same time all 12 teams really want to participate. So in the end we found compromises on all issues and it could not have happened without great teamwork," thanked BHL manager Urmo Sitsi all clubs for their co-operation.
"BHL implemented a new system last season and it was proven absolutely justified. Having been involved in BHL activities almost from the start, I cannot remember so even and high level in our competition. I believe the new season will be as exciting and equal fight for every point and position," commented Sitsi.
"Several clubs have strengthened significantly, but of course – at this point they are names on paper, it will be exciting to see what is the reality on the field. In Group A, the three teams outside Baltic countries are maybe considered as favourites, but they will not have any easy games," predicted the BHL manager.
"After very long time we have all three champions of Baltic States in the same group, so this adds excitement. And in Group B all six teams have ambitions to qualify to quarter-finals. In addition, all clubs are investing more and more in the work with community and advertising the games, so hopefully we have more fans in the halls," added Sitsi.
Cocks is aiming for a fifth straight BHL title
BHL champion Cocks will start new season in a good mood, as after two opening defeats in the EHF Champions League, they took a good win on Wednesday. At home, Cocks defeated Slovakian side HT Tatran Prešov by 29:27 (Teemu Tamminen and Nico Rönnberg 7 goals).
"This was important win for us, as last week we did not play well in Spain. Both the result and the positive emotions for the team were hugely useful. Now we switch to Baltic League and obviously are planning to play better than last season. Yes, we won the competition, but group stage was difficult," commented Cocks' head coach Gintaras Savukynas.
"We made many changes in the summer and it has not been easy to make the team as a whole. Some players integrate quicker, some slower and it does take time to get everyone to play as we like. In addition we have three players out injured in Markelau, Basaric and Zupanjac," added the experienced Lithuanian coach.
"What makes us especially happy this season, is the new hall – it is beautiful, comfortable and makes everything around our team even more professional. But it also adds extra expectations, as our fans have missed international matches, so both the BHL and Champions League are important for us," admits Savukynas.
Group A newcomer Tenax brings interesting players to the league
Last year's Group B winners ZRHK Tenax Dobele have strengthened their squad in order to compete successfully in BHL and have also entered the EHF CHallenge Cup this season – after 12 years absence! Latvian internationals Aivis Jurdžs, Maris Veršakovs and Emils Kurzemnieks have returned from abroad to bring experience.
"As we already had several internationals in the team, it was important for the national team preparing for EURO 2020 finals to have players here. But also for us, as we take part in Challenge Cup and were promoted to Group A in BHL, meaning we have more matches against serious opponents," said Sandris Veršakovs, who will be coaching his younger brother Maris, as the Dobele-born playmaker returned after 12 years in Germany.
"New players bring loads of experience, but as our team have been more or less together for six years, it is not easy to fit immediately into the team. So in some areas we are still searching teamwork, but hope to find it soon. First weekend of BHL brings big tests facing Serviti and Cocks away," admits Veršakovs.
Tenax had a full week to prepare, as they had no matches in domestic league. In the meantime their's and ZTR's weekend opponent Serviti enjoyed a return to winning ways in Estonian league. 14-time champion beat old rival HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper on Wednesday by 27:19 (Henri Sillaste 9 – Vladyslav Naumenko 5).
Former champion Kehra wishes to get back to winning
Group B will have very much Estonian flavour this season, as half of the six teams are from Estonia. Four out of five matches this weekend will be played in Kehra and Tallinn, as Viljandi HC visits both domestic rivals and Celtnieks Riga makes a trip up north.
Viljandi is somewhat surprisingly the leader of Estonian league after three rounds, although on Thursday they only managed a 27:27 draw against SK Tapa (Robert Lõpp 5). Serviti and HC Tallinn are just one point behind, but Tallinn also had to fight hard to beat Aruküla/Audentes 28:26 (Kaspar Lees 7) in midweek.
Kehra dropped down from Group A, when they lost all ten games in the regular season. "Group B is definitely more suitable for us, I believe it is a very even and strong group. We would like to get back to winning ways in BHL, especially in home matches," said Mart Raudsepp, who will make his head coaching BHL-debut on Saturday.
"Wednesday's defeat against Serviti is only giving us more motivation, we were clearly outrunned in the second half. Now there's two important matches at home. We don't know yet too much about Celtnieks, but on Sunday we would like to have a revenge against Viljandi," hinted Raudsepp to the 25:27 defeat in the opening round of Estonian league.
Just like Latvian champion Tenax, their local rivals Celtnieks have also added several new players to their squad. Aliaksei Haisa and Aliaksandr Patcykailik are experienced Belarussians, while young Frenchman Victor Dazou has also joined the team.
An all-Lithuanian affair of Group B will take place on Saturday, as Granitas-Karys Kaunas hosts VHC Šviesa Vilnius. In midweek the teams had mixed emotions from domestic league. Šviesa beat KKSC-RSSG-Grifas Kaunas by 39:19 (Karolis Antanavičius), as Granitas-Karys suffered a surprising defeat at HC Vilnius by 27:31 (Karolis Grigas, Marius Kairys, Karolis Dambrauskas 6).
On photo: A moment from 2018/19 decisive match between Cocks and ZTR – the finalists will meet again on Saturday to open their 2019/20 BHL season. (Photo: BHL).