2009 silver medalists eye next year's gold

May 19, 2009, 4:47 p.m. (ET)

Both silver medal teams of the 2009 Club National Championships have vowed to return and take home different color medals in 2010 – gold.

The Lady Condors and the Houston Firehawks both played the roles of underdog in their divisions' final matches, lost by three goals and have promised to dethrone the men’s and women’s reigning champions next year.

“I think it goes without saying,” said Ray Rene, coach of the Lady Condors, “we have unfinished business to attend to.”

The Lady Condors team was the dark horse on the women’s side, a compilation of Georgian homegrown handball talent and athletes from Canada; the whole squad had not even practiced together before the competition.

Said Felix Murokh, coach of the Chicago Inter, “I would say they’re a good team, a good mix. It’s very hard to play if you don’t know who you’re playing against.”

Chicago Inter, winner of the last women’s national championship as well, fell behind the Condors during the majority of the first half before pulling ahead by one goal at halftime. They gained the lead in the second half with the Condors closing the gap for a final score of 28-25.

Murokh said he was missing several key players due to pregnancy or injuries, but “it was a good comeback. Some of my players looked nervous, but when they saw that we could win because of how the first half ended, they saw that it was just a game.”

Rene said he was left speechless by his team's ability to mesh on the court and compete with "better-trained" opponents.

“I believe the best team won. I also think that we provided very strong competition, although in the end we came up short,” he said. “I think we that we tactically were at a disadvantage because of the training time Chicago had relative to ours. We look forward to following Chicago’s model and building a strong training program for the Lady Condors.

“The future looks very bright with this silver medal win. I look forward to being back here in the finals next year and going home with a different color medal.”

Oscar Grisales, coach of the Houston Firehawks, who came in second place in the men’s division, echoed Rene’s outlook for the 2010 Nationals.

“Next year, I’m going to win the tournament,” said Grisales. “I know what I have to do. I know what we have to work on.”

New York City and Houston went head-to-head in a final match battle that extended into overtime. The Firehawks maintained up to a nine goal lead throughout; NYC closed in and tied the score with a 7-meter throw with no time left on the clock and broke away in overtime to win 37-34.

The Firehawks were a surprise and serious contender against the powerhouse from New York. Grisales described his squad as a “non-stop practice team” composed of 10 core players from Houston and others from Colorado, Europe and South America. “We were ready to work and fight for it,” he said of the 2009 championship title. “We gave 120 percent. I think New York was confident, and shocked when we could do more than expected.”

Shkumbin Mustafa of NYC said his team’s biggest problem was celebrating too early. “It almost cost us the title for which we prepared during the entire year. I guess we got a little too over confident. We will certainly not repeat the same mistake next year.

“We just didn’t start the game off the way we should have. We didn’t execute right. They jumped on top of us and we were slow to react on defense […] The hole we were in just kept getting deeper, no matter what we tried to do, and Firehawks kept on bringing the game to us. They surprised us with their intensity. At times it felt as we were asleep, and no matter what we tried, we just couldn't wake up.”

The turning point came nine minutes before the end of the match while the team was huddled up during a timeout. “Our captain told us if we are going to lose, we should lose like a team fighting until the end,” said Mustafa. “It completely changed the way we saw the outcome of the game. It was a great moment.”

Zoran Ostojic, Mustafa’s teammate on NYC and Grundfos MVP of the tournament, agreed.

“There was no plan made but to give everything we had left on that floor. We have a great team spirit and we never give up,” he said.

Other significant steps to NYC’s comeback, however, included dismantling a few of Houston’s key players.

“They were wise enough to shut (middle back) Jose Garcia down. It hurt us a lot,” said Grisales. The Firehawks also lost two of their outside shooters to redcards. “New York was able to take advantage of the situation. They played very well and they knew how to come back. It’s not like they didn’t do anything for it. They knew what to do and they did it right and they were successful.”

Grisales said the tournament and final match were learning experiences for Houston; he aims to make his athletes more universal on the court so the team can recover when one or two players are lost.

For a moment, though, Grisales is content with his team’s success. “We are very happy. We were happy to be there to compete and be part of a great tournament. We are looking forward to being there next year.

“Of course we’re going to win.”

But New York will be ready.

Said Ostojic, “NYC Team Handball Club plays to win always.”