A Latvian team got a stunning upset at Euros. Can they do it again at Worlds?
June 17, 2016 by Lorcan Murray in Preview with 0 comments
There is a storm building in Europe — spinning in the streets of Salzburg, ploughing across French fields, and lurking in Swedish parks — and it’s heading straight for London. With WUGC nearly upon us, it is time to learn a bit more about some of the men’s teams who will be competing in England next week, squaring off against the best the world has to offer.
The Opening Worlds Bow For Latvian Open
Sheltered by the Baltic forests of Northern Europe, Latvian ultimate has quietly been growing for the past two decades. Historically an indoor-focused country, Latvia has, up to now, been on the international scene only at the European Championships. Regarded across the continent as a lower-tier ultimate nation, Latvia have started to challenge this moniker in recent times.
In 1999 the LFF (Latvijas Frisbija Federācija) was established, three years after the first Latvian club started running trainings in Ogre. After the installation of the LFF, both the sport and its supporting administration grew rapidly. The results of this growth became apparent in 2002 when the organization hosted WJUC in Riga. This was followed up two years later with the first, and until June of this year, only appearance of a Latvian Senior team at a World Championships, specifically in the Women’s Division.
Despite not reprising their role until this summer, in the intermittent twelve years Latvia have sent Open and Women’s teams to the European Championships in 2007, 2011, and 2015. These were by and large underwhelming performances for the Open squad as they finished 15th in 2007 and 2011 before improving their position to 10th last year in Copenhagen. These difficulties on grass reflect Latvia’s focus on indoor competition: twice as many teams compete in the national indoor league than in the outdoor championships.
Despite the international record of mediocrity, Latvia is not completely lacking in legacy. Chief amongst the jewels in Latvia’s crown are the exploits of Salaspils’ club team Wild Things at last year’s European Club championships. Entering the tournament largely as an afterthought to their competition, they refused to accept their dismissal and resolved instead to become the surprise success story of the tournament. Wild Things earned themselves the highest position for a Latvian team at the European level as well as some lovely Bronze medals. The biggest shock of the tournament came on the opening day as Wild Things beat reigning European Champions (and pseudo British national team) Clapham in the group stages. Despite losing to them in a semi-final rematch, the Latvians dented the armor of a team few European squads saw as beatable. Team vice-captain Jānis Bernāns said: “There we played us underdogs and that’s always easier. In WUGC we are hoping for almost same scenario…only this time we win the semi!”
Despite several of the Wild Things being on this Latvian outfit and the confidence they brought, the squad finished 10th in the Confederations Cup in May. The Dutch were the only other team bound for the Open Division to place beneath them.
The LFF could only afford to send one team to WUGC in London this year due to funding issues. Much to the chagrin of the female ultimate players in Latvia, they opted for the Open squad. It was a hard but unavoidable financial decision for the administrators to make. While the omission of a Women’s squad was an unfortunate reality, the pressure to prove they deserved the selection coming from the players left at home could become a positive thing. “Now we have some pressure on as, because if we fail at WUGC, our girls will be really mad,” said Bernāns.
A lot of the credit for putting together this Latvian outfit goes to team managers Kriss Malinovskis and Martins Taurenis. The latter has been particularly integral to establishing Latvia’s presence on the international stage through his tireless pursuit of governmental funding. They were one of the last European teams to form a squad for this tournament as trials were only held in February. These trials produced thirty candidates, who were whittled down to eighteen following the Confederations Cup last month. While the ultimate community in Latvia remains relatively small there is an elite standard amongst the player pool that this team is drawn from. Latvia’s head coach Sergejs Volkovs is a student of the sport who, alongside team leader and Rise Up scholar Martins Gusars Volkovs, has been devising a new cutting strategy for their squad. The team leadership know the results so far have not been ideal but they are comfortable with their progress ahead of London. “In tournament (Confederations Cup) we found our weakness so we won’t make those mistakes in WUGC,” said Bernāns.
Players To Watch
The older of the Otisons brothers on this team, Reinis is one of the most impressive cutters to ever come out of Eastern Europe. Current president of the LFF, he is a leader in every avenue of Latvian ultimate. Off the pitch, he was the Junior coach for the last three years, granting him a special connection with the younger elements of the team. He also leads physically on the pitch (see his litany of national MVP award) and mentally (watch him take Latvia to task time and again in London). For Reinis, a game changing play is simply called ‘a play’.
The younger of the Otisons brothers may sound familiar to reader’s knowledgeable with the University of Florida’s roster. Compact like a tightly wound spring, Andris is a handler’s nightmare. He excels in shutting down handlers, grinding them down until they resort to the ‘stand and point’ dump cut at which point he has the necessary agility and infuriating tendency to get the D anyway.
Arvids Zanis Orlovskis
The youngest player on the national Latvian team, Orlovskis is a veteran of two tours with the Junior outfit in 2013 and 2014, as well as one with the Senior team in Copenhagen last year. Only recently bestowed height, Orlovskis throws with the inventiveness of a much smaller handler. Oh, and he’s sixteen, so he lacks the life experience to be daunted by the challenge in front of him.
What To Expect
The Latvians are working hard to make sure their debut on the WUGC stage is a memorable one. Internal training is regular and intense, in the hopes of counterbalancing the lack of tournament calibre opposition available to the squad. Tucked away in their corner of the Baltic Sea the Latvians are armed with self-determination and confidence. Bernāns believes they have much still to show: “In all previous tournament we played [as a] weaker team [than] we actually are. In Confederation Cup we let everyone play, but in London [we] will play only our best players.”
We already have a shining example of what happened the last time people underestimated this group of players. We shall have to wait and see if it can happen again.