|Viktoriia Zavialova gets instructions from Russian head coach Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovich|
Russia have started the U16 European Championship Women with six wins in a row, which has left many observers wondering - how far can this team go?
Maria Vadeeva and Raisa Musina are the eye-catching frontcourt duo - the terrifying twosome who send fear through coaches and squads around the continent.
But the real strength in head coach Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovich's squad is its depth. For one thing, Arkhipova is able to call on three other players who, along with Vadeeva and Musina, logged significant minutes in 2013's squad, which finished in 6th place in Bulgaria.
Sharp-shooter Daria Kurilchuk, wing Alina Bespaltseva and reserve center Tatiana Kazakova are the other holdovers who experienced quarter-final anguish last year. Russia won their first five games in Varna and Albena, but they were undone by Francesca Pan's inspired performance in the first knockout match against Italy.
The Sparta&K Connection
Kurilchuk is also a teammate of Vadeeva and Musina at the Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje club, which provides six of this year's squad. Kseniia Nesterova, Sevara Nuritdinova and Ksenia Sharova are the other familiar faces, though as Arkhipova explains, "Most of them know each other before. They have played against or with each other over the last five years, so they know weak and strong sides very well."
Steve Costalas is the general manager of Sparta&K and he is in Debrecen assisting the Russian delegation. From his own vast experience of working with young talents, he's all too aware how a performance like Pan's in 2013 can derail a team's hopes.
"It can happen on any given day: One player has a great game, the team picks up on the momentum of the player and the other team sees things going wrong, missing lay-ups and missing foul shots. That causes a chain reaction at this age group. Psychology is an incredible matter. One day they don't show up, or they feel that they have it in the bag, or things don't go their way in the first minutes and they lose completely their concentration," Costalas explained.
|Steve Costallas is assisting the Russian delegation at the U16 tournament|
Thanks to a programme instituted by the late Shabtai Von Kalmanovic the Sparta&K club invest heavily in youth, running one of Russia's most prestigious schools for developing young talent, although there are plenty of others - a necessary requirement in covering Russia's vast land-mass.
Identifying Talented Youngsters
Arkhipova is thankful to the schools and the clubs for the players that they are able to provide, and Costalas explained the difficulties of identifying young talents and persuading them to opt for basketball over other popular sports such as volleyball or tennis: "We take a lot of chances. These girls started, we have a group of 14 players now, and we started eight years ago with 20, 23 players, and every year we're adding one, two, three players. So you probably have to run 40 players through the system, with 20 coming out.
"We're not so much in that old system of measuring the bones and seeing how tall they will become and all that. We're into how observant they are for what you teach them. Hopefully, we catch as much talent as possible."
The girls at Sparta&K go to school together and live together, and it's clear that they share a bond which has developed over the course of many years. National team player Valeriya Musina has been in attendance for every game of the tournament so far to watch her sister, Raisa, and she was very happy with the role that the club had played in developing the players: "Sparta&K is one of the best growing schools and they have everything there. They have houses, school, university. They live like a campus, a family. And Arkhipova gives them everything. I don't think they could find a better place to grow up."
There are obvious advantages to Russia's immense geographical size, but it can make it difficult to arrange regular get-togethers on a representative level, so the role of the clubs is crucial. Having reached this point of their career, Costalas knows that in order to continue the development of the players, they need to see rewards on the horizon for their hard work.
"They have to see that they can play. Everybody was talking about Sparta&K, just as an example, that we had just superstars and we weren't giving a chance to Russian players. But that was the thing - make a big team, make the reputation, attract the talent who want to be in the team, let them learn from these players.
"So when we had five of the squad from the U16 Russian team in Naples [in 2009] in our squad which played in the EuroLeague Women Final Eight in Ekaterinburg this season, these kids look and think 'Hey, I can play there. In two years or three years, I'll be there also.'
"When they feel that they can play at a high level, 19, 20, 21 years old, and not have to wait at the end of the bus, that is a big thing. Keep them working, but you have to give them hope - you have to give them light at the end of the tunnel."
Costalas cites recent examples such as Ksenia Tikhonenko, who spent the 2012-13 season on loan at Municipal Targoviste ("she came back two times a better player"), and Julia Gladkova, who was recently sent on loan to Slovakian club Spisska Nova Ves after starring at the U20 European Championship Women in Udine.
The Next Generation For The National Team
The hope is not only to win more medals at youth level, but to provide fresh talent for the national team. Russia's run of six successive EuroBasket Women finals was abruptly ended by a first-round exit in France in 2013, and head coach Anatoly Myshkin is still rejuvenating the team, which has recently lost great players such as Maria Stepanova and Ilona Korstin.
|Maria Vadeeva is a very promising talent on Russia's U16 team|
Sparta&K players Tikhonenko, Daria Namok and Kseniia Levchenko, as well as Dynamo Moscow's Tatiana Abrikosova, are among those to have been called into the senior squad recently, and the older Musina sister is hopeful of more talent coming through from the current U16 squad: "They just need to continue working hard, and they can't think like they are stars and they made it already. They have to keep going."
Valeriya is effusive in her praise of Arkhipova - "the best point guard in Russia. I'm sad that I didn't get a chance to play with her!" - and the current U16 head coach agrees with Valeriya's message that a good work ethic is the key to success: "If everyone from this team works hard, they can play in senior basketball and grow to be big stars. I hope everyone will work hard for their future."
For now, dreams of future representation in the senior team are set aside - there's a tournament to win, and none of the other quarter-finalists are simply going to concede victory. Arkhipova stalks the sideline with a quiet calm, and the Russian team runs some wonderful sets which show the play-caller's keen eye.
"Watching them from the first game until now, I think they're getting better as a team. And the atmosphere, you can see they support each other," Valeriya observed from the spectators' tribunes. She describes her sister as having a big heart: "I'm looking at my sister and I feel like I'm there on the court. I want to be there! I'm so proud of her. I think she's better than me, actually."
If that's true, Russia have got a hell of a player on their hands, not to mention Vadeeva and the other talents throughout the team. The Russian U16 team's quest to add to the 2014 U18 European Championship Women gold medal begins in earnest on Friday, with a quarter-final against Belgium.