|Anna Cruz, the heart and soul of last season's revelation Rivas Ecopolis, says the EuroLeague Women is 'a box of surprises'|
By Paul Nilsen
There has barely been a fairytale story in women's basketball bigger than the meteoric rise of Rivas Ecopolis.
From the second tier of the Spanish game in the not too distant past, Rivas built on their domestic progression by bursting onto the EuroLeague Women scene in spectacular style a few years ago.
If you thought that the initial and almost unprecedented first-season success, when they won their first seven games in the competition was impressive and a peak never to be matched, then you would be wrong.
Only last season, head coach Miguel Mendez surpassed the wonderful strides made by his predecessor Javier Fort by taking Rivas on a stunning run - all the way to the very last game of the season at the Final Eight where they came runners-up to Ros Casares.
However, with another terrific season behind them, there is one big problem now.
To improve this year, they have to win the EuroLeague Women title! An unlikely scenario, but then so was reaching the Final last season and Rivas Ecopolis is the club who seem to continually show that absolutely anything is possible.
The most impressive elements during their relatively short time competing in Europe is that they continue to give healthy minutes to young players and therefore have given a real poke in the eye to those teams who keep on overlooking rising stars.
Of course the important ingredient for Rivas is that they have also employed a good sprinkling of veterans too, in order to get a balance, although Spanish duo Amaya Valdermoro and Elisa Aguilar have both exited for pastures new during the summer.
Remaining at the club though is another Spanish national team player, in Anna Cruz. She is most definitely the heart and soul of Rivas.
"Nobody expected that we would reach the final last season and that's such a hard thing to repeat," Cruz admitted.
|Spain international Laura Nicholls, who was paramount in Rivas's success last year, is a familiar face in the frontcourt amid many new arrivals|
"But so was last year. We know we don't start as favourites and that's something that also takes the pressure off us - sometimes this even helps you to play better.
"We have to focus primarily on the Liga Femenina (Spanish league) and then in the EuroLeague Women we will slowly be coming up where we can and in time, we will finish in our deserved place."
Of course the domestic season in Spain is special for Rivas this year.
Having tried for so long to break the dominance of Perfumerias Avenida and Ros Casares, the unfortunate demise of the latter means that Rivas could (and some may even argue should) win some titles this year and so I wouldn't blame them for prioritising trying to get trophies in the cupboard.
Not that Cruz is expecting her team to take their eyes of the ball altogether in Europe. She is already looking forward to some of the match-ups in Group A which have a familiar feel since Rivas will once again lock horns with the likes of Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje, Wisla Can-Pack and BK Brno.
"To say that you're in an easy or difficult group in this competition makes no sense since any group will always be difficult," Cruz offered.
"We have to deal with it game by game and we find the best example of this last year when we beat Sparta&K at home and Wisla Can-Pack twice, when nobody was expecting it, but we were also defeated by theoretically weaker teams.
"The EuroLeague Women is a box of surprises and we will see where we can reach this year. Clearly, when the play-offs come, home-court advantage is always crucial, and that's what we will fight for."
Alongside the ‘glue' and leadership provided by the guard play of Cruz, Rivas have also retained the services of long-serving Clara Bermejo who will be hoping to get back to her fantastic best, which saw her light it up in her first EuroLeague Women capaign.
|Queralt Casas, the 2011 U20 European Championship Women MVP, will make her EuroLeague Women debut with Rivas|
They will be joined by their fellow rising star Queralt Casas whose first season in the EuroLeague Women is one I have been looking forward to for such a long time. Her stellar talent deserves to be showcased on the highest platform.
There has also been an influx of new faces with slightly more experience. And, in an undeniably smart move, the club has recruited players who also know what it takes to win games in the Liga Femenina.
Rivas will indeed have few worries under the hoop since they have also added Aneika Henry who impressed with Lotos Gdynia, having previously played with Zaragoza and Gran Canaria.
In fact, they will have an embarrassment of riches to choose from in the frontcourt since they have also inked a deal with Ziomara Morrison who has spent the summer battling under the hoop with San Antonio Silver Stars in the WNBA.
Meanwhile in the backcourt, Katalin Honti is a EuroLeague Women champion although she struggled to find court time on a stacked Ros Casares team last season, so this looks like a great career move for her.
If there is one issue I have with Rivas, it's that they arguably look a little heavy in the frontcourt and potentially imbalanced slightly with not the same kind of depth in the backcourt.
I do fear they do not have a whole lot of firepower if teams employ zone defence - but we will see if this slight concern is a valid one.
One more shooter or scorer and they would be one of my favourites to both reach and succeed at the Final Eight again.