In the 1990s, Hapoel Rishon Letzion dominated Israeli handball - not just the men, but the women, too. The women's team captured four consecutive championships (1991-95 ) and three State Cups. Noga Shimoni was then a young player on the team. "We had an amazing group, with players like Elena Rubenstein and Oksana Sevchuk, who carried the rest of the team," Shimoni told Haaretz yesterday.
Nearly two decades later, the women's team is attempting a comeback to the top of the league. Hapoel Rishon is second in the standings and today faces Bnot Herzliya in the Cup final. Shimoni - at 41 the veteran of the team - will be there.
Shimoni says the players' daily lives make it hard to practice as much as they would like. "I'm a mother of three who runs an office and finds time as well for handball," she says. "We usually only start practicing around nine in the evening, and it's the only team that doesn't pay salaries. We play because we love handball."
Herzliya has been the team to beat in Israeli women's handball for several years. It is the four-time reigning champion, and won four of the past five State Cups. The last time Herzliya didn't hoist the Cup, in 2008, it was Hapoel Rishon that celebrated after a dramatic win over Hapoel Petah Tikva. "It's going to be a close contest," says Bnei Herzliya coach Benny Ingel. "There's parity between the teams. If we take advantage of our players' speed and dictate the pace, we'll win.
Rishon is aware of its opponent's advantages and will try to slow down the game. "We're taller and more massive," says Shimoni. "Most of our goals come from planned plays, while Herzliya's players use their speed to grab most of their goals on fast breaks."
One of Herzliya's fastest players is 17-year-old Shir Vikrat. She grew up in Petah Tivka and has played with Bnei Herzliya since the 2008-09 season. Vikrat made an impression while at a handball camp in Germany over the summer and is expected to play there after completing her matriculation exams. Other top players include Nitsan Dunay and goalkeeper Tamar Yerushalmi.
Hapoel Rishon also has young players who make for a promising future, but their future participation is in doubt. Or Turjeman is in basic training in the army. Team officials are lobbying to arrange leave for her in time for the final. "The team is built around her," coach Johnny Olenyk said yesterday. "Her enlistment is like a heart attack for the team."
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