Maccabi Tel Aviv is unstoppable in the local volleyball league, but it will have to sweat tonight against Ankara. The two teams meet in the first match of the European Challenge Cup's second round. The team's leader, Ariel Hillman, will probably call his psychologist on the phone for a few tips, which will hopefully generate the same results he got in last year's State Cup final.
Before that game between Hillman's Maccabi Tel Aviv and double-title holder Maccabi Hod Hasharon, Hillman met in a coffee shop with Dan Valenci. The sports psychologist suddenly whipped out a copy of that morning's sports page previewing the matchup. "Hod Hasharon has (Sergey) Zhyvolozhny (Eli) Efrati," read Valenci. "Maccabi Tel Aviv is still looking for a player to lead it. Hillman needs to prove he's capable [of doing so]."
The psychologist nudged him, "So, who's going to win today?"
After two years of letdowns, Hillman, now 23, was thirsty for his first title. He recalls that he went to his kibbutz to hand out tickets to his friends, ate lunch at home and concluded his time had come. "In the final, everything exploded," says Hillman, who led his team to victory that night.
Like many kibbutz youth in the Emek Hefer region, Hillman - who was born on Kibbutz Haogen - was exposed to volleyball early on and landed with the Hapoel Hama'apil youth team. "There's always a shortage of players, so they move up the kids quickly," he says of the kibbutz sports industry that had him playing on the men's team in 11th grade.
The high school talent spent much of his summers in training camps with the national youth team. His coach, Yaakov Hershko, saw raw talent in the lanky, 67-kilogram teen, and told him, "You already have what's tough to improve and lack the things that are easy to improve."
By the time he graduated, Hama'apil no longer had money or a future, and Maccabi Tel Aviv recruited him. It was no easy feat for owner Shraga Shemesh, who showed up at a home deeply loyal to Hapoel red. It helped, however, that coach Zohar Bar Netzer was the big brother of Ziv, Hillman's best friend and teammate on Hama'apil. Hillman signed at age 18, putting aside ideology.
Hillman made the starting six in his second season, 2005/06, and the surprising young team lost in the playoff final. The team was stronger and more mature during the 2006/07 campaign, but Bar Netzer felt Hillman wasn't taking the reins. So he hooked up his young star with Valenci, the sports psychologist, during the final series.
"I always had good statistics, but I was never a winner in important games," Hillman says to explain why he needed treatment. Maccabi still lost the championship in the fifth and deciding game, but the meetings with Valenci became more frequent as Hillman started feeling a change.
"I turned into a killer, a hunter," he says. "When I scored a point in matches I made a fist at the other players to show them who's the boss. I realized I was responsible for what was going on and I wanted the ball at the end of the game."
Last year, no one could hold back Hillman and Maccabi any longer.
"We came as 18-year olds with potential and grew into the best players in the country," he says of his team, crediting coach Ben Netzer and Shemesh the owner.
Hillman tried to get an offer in Europe during the last off-season, but when he came up empty-handed, he headed for Thailand recharge his batteries. "The league isn't so good, but Maccabi itself isn't a bad place to be," he says. "If we weren't playing in Europe, I wouldn't stay."
After this season, Hillman will try once again to fulfill his dream of playing in Europe. If that doesn't work out, he has one dream left for the end of his career. "If Hama'apil is still alive," he says, "I have a fantasy about going back and leading it."
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