Bendigo, Victoria, June 3, 2016 - The experience of Croatia was the difference in the opening match of the World Grand Prix in Bendigo, the Europeans beating Cuba 3-1 (25-17, 21-25, 25-17, 25-18).
The Cubans have a very young team in Bendigo, the oldest player just 24, and two of their squad just 16-years-old. Croatia also has plenty of young players and two 16-year-olds of their own, but also have a good sprinkling of experienced players who guided them to victory. Croatian captain Mia Jerkov was the star of the match, finishing with 19 points for the game, but more importantly showing leadership on the court whenever her team looked in trouble.
Croatia made a strong start, with the inexperience of the Cubans showing in many soft points. The Cubans took until the midway through the first set to get their bearings and settle their nerves, but the early lead was too much to peg back. Croatian 16-year-old Ema Strunjak was a tower of strength on the net, while Cuba’s 16-year-old Melissa Vargas was finding her groove.
The Cubans were much more confident in the second set, backing their youthful exuberance with power hitting and plenty of bounce in their play, but while the Croatians were outplayed in the set, they never looked panicked.
At one set all Cuba looked to have the momentum, but they could not carry the wave of victory into the third set.
In the fourth set Cuba went out strong and held a convincing lead at 10-6, but with Jerkov again leading by example the Croatians clawed their way back. With Cuba lacking the on-court experience of Croatia they had no answers when the Europeans fought back and took control.