Very far from the spotlights and the small crowd at Metrowest Arena, the national women’s volleyball team advanced in convincing fashion to the third round of the World Championships qualifiers.
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“I am very happy that we carried out the mission and didn’t disappoint,” says lead setter Ron Ponti. “I always have fears. On the one hand we knew that we are supposed to advance, but we also knew that all the national squads are similar in their level of play, and if we should have an off day, anything could happen.”
Arie Selinger’s players pulled off four consecutive victories, and only in the fifth game – which was meaningless – did Israel succumb to Hungary. “We proved a lot of things to ourselves,” says Ponti. “In the past it would happen that on a certain day we played well and the following day we would be weak. This time, despite it being a very long tournament, we managed to stay consistent, and it gave us a feeling that we are on the rise.”
Ponti, 25, is considered the veteran on the national squad. In recent years there was talk of a lack of depth and a fear that the local production line wouldn’t send to the team the desired next generation. However, after years of drought the picture changed.
“A huge gap was created because there aren’t many players my age, but the young generation has a lot of talent and will take their place on the team,” she foresees. “For now, they are still too young to lead on their own. We have to keep working with them and not give up after a year or two. You have to measure it in the long term.”
Selinger’s national project has been going on for six years now with massive and exceptional support, especially if you take into account that an esoteric women’s sport is involved. Criticism of how resources are allocated has been and continues to be in the background. Meanwhile, the enterprise presses ahead.
“There is full support from people close to the national squad, but there will always be people on the outside who will try to knock us down,” says Ponti. “That’s how it is in Israel. People don’t like seeing something that doesn’t generate immediate results, something that isn’t soccer or basketball and demands a lot of money. There is always some talk in the manner of ‘If we don’t win then they will close us down,’ but we carry on. It’s really not taken for granted that they invest in us, and every time we have to fight to make our case and market ourselves. We are still not in the European elite, but we’re getting there.”
The road to Germany
If Ponti herself is making progress, last summer when the national team played in Germany as part of the Euroleague, a local players’ agent recognized her potential and made a match between her and Bundesliga club Ladies in Black Aachen.
“I always wanted to go out to Europe, but I pretty much gave up because I could not find a team,” notes Ponti. “Everything went so fast. Within a week, I made a decision, flew to Germany and signed. I am very excited. For several years I have had this idea inside my mind, of going to play abroad. I really love Germany as a country, with its sports culture and organization.”
In addition to Ponti, Aachen has the setter of the Dutch national team on its roster, so there will be a fight for playing time. “On paper the plan is for me to be the second setter, but I didn’t come there as decoration. I will fight for my spot, and I believe that I will play,” she says.
Ponti says she won’t forget Selinger in Aachen, where the standards are high. “At every practice he shows me something we didn’t know and manages to renew us,” says the setter. “He always repeats, ‘fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.’ Even in Germany I find myself knowing so many things about the game that other women, even if they are considered top players with more trophies than me, don’t necessarily know.”
She says the things she has learned from Selinger have been ingrained in her since he explained to the national squad the logic behind them. “My improvement is mainly thanks to the Selinger project,” Ponti asserts. “I don’t know where I would be today if it weren’t for the project. Certainly, I would have signed up for studies and would be playing volleyball just for fun.”