|12 October 2012|
|Croatian star Sandra Mandir, who made her EuroLeague Women debut in 1997, will lead Novi Zagreb in their first ever season in the competition |
By Paul Nilsen
Picking up the baton from arch-rivals Gospic, who previously represented Croatia in the EuroLeague Women, Novi Zagreb has an difficult rookie season ahead of them.
Things were always likely to be difficult for the newcomers, but being pitched into Group C, arguably the most difficult of the First Round, certainly hasn't done them too many favours and it's a case of being thrown in at the deep end.
However, Novi Zagreb can and most probably will show the same kind of fighting spirit previously displayed by Gospic, who didn't have the same level of resources as most of their rivals but regularly produced strong performances and came up with wins each season.
There is a sense of reality within Zagreb that it will of course be a challenge, but newly arrived Matea Vrdoljak, who has regularly played in EuroCup Women during recent seasons, was quick to highlight the determination of the team to succeed against the odds.
"Novi Zagreb is young and doesn't have that much experience team in the EuroLeague Women, but that doesn't mean that we are not strong enough for the competition," the guard stated.
"We have some good individual players who can solve situations one against one, and we also have a good team connection. This team is totally different from last year and the expectations are higher.
"Of course our first game is against Galatasaray but, honestly, we have nothing to lose against them because they are an experienced team in this competition and they have so many great players.
"Maybe we can search for a surprise against them if they are not complete at the beginning of the season!
"Our group is difficult and I think it is strongest group of the year, but we are ready to make an upset," Vrdoljak predicted.
|Forward Mirna Mazic is one of several Croatia internationals on the Novi Zagreb roster|
She continued: "This is a big challenge for me having played four years in the EuroCup Women.
"I'm proud of the way I have played and because of that, I wanted to try something better and stronger, like the EuroLeague Women!
"We will see how we will all play as a team and how big and strong the competition is for me and the rest of the players.
"Most of my team-mates have not had a chance to play in Europe, and so this is going to be a big challenge, but we are ready for it.
"We're practicing every day, eagerly awaiting the EuroLeague Women season to start and generally preparing ourselves to face the best players in the world!"
Whilst Vrdoljak hasn't quite managed to break into the Croatian national team and share in the success of the last couple of years, she remains fiercely proud and supportive of the national team, also recognising the important role Novi Zagreb can play in continuing to raise the profile of women's basketball in the country.
"Our national team has had a great last few years playing at the EuroBasket Women and the Olympics.
"We have some really great players in the national team and also some of them are with us here at Novi Zagreb and because of that, we believe that we can do something good in the EuroLeague Women.
|Young Croatia internationals Lana Packovski (pictured) and Inja Butina could get the chance to experience EuroLeague Women basketball this season |
"We also want success in the Croatian league and cup too."
Leading the way will be Sandra Mandir, the veteran scoring machine who so famously and deservedly made the All-Tournament Team at EuroBasket Women 2011 and was the stand-out performer for Gospic in recent seasons.
She is a wonderful player, exciting to watch and will be the real ‘X-Factor' for the team.
Novi Zagreb certainly has a strong home-grown core. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the team are Croatian.
Frontcourt duo Sena Pavetic and Mirna Mazic have both tasted national team action (albeit sparingly) during the last couple of years and are complimented by Gordana Bedalov, Tea Buzov, Ana Cacic, Antonija Juric and Ivana Seric.
The only non-Croatian players are Serbian Dunja Prcic who briefly participated for her national team in the EuroBasket Women Qualification Round, along with power forward Latoya Williams and guard Leilani Mitchell.
Obviously Williams and Mitchell will be expected to be the main weapons along with Mandir, although it was originally going to be Mauritia Reid instead of Mitchell but the Jamaican had some visa issues which couldn't be resolved.
In plumping for Mitchell, who has spent the last four years in France with Arras as well as playing this summer in the WNBA with New York Liberty, Novi Zagreb has someone who will not only score and provide for others, but will also help out on the boards too.
However, because she isn't arriving until the start of November, Courtney Vandersloot will deputise after inking a short term deal with the club.
With Williams a real powerhouse and top performer in the Greek and Israeli leagues during the past couple of seasons, it will be interesting to see her playing in European competition for the first time and it will be a good test for her.
Novi Zagreb has limited resources, limited experience of the elite level and will clearly be the group underdogs along with USO Mondeville. But, the label of underdog is one that women's basketball in Croatia has embraced and thrived upon during recent times.
If they display the same level of spirit, hard work and application as both the national team and Gospic, then anyone taking them lightly could regret it and Novi Zagreb will certainly fancy their chances of causing a few upsets on home soil.