“I did not expect to be MVP, because we were a team”
“A perfect ending for a perfect season.” This is how German left back Xenia Smits described the last game of the Energi Viborg EHF Finals, as her team, SG BBM Bietigheim, clinched a superb win, 31:20, against Viborg HK, to clinch their first international title.
It was a superb team effort, praised by coach Markus Gaugisch, with 12 of Bietigheim’s 13 outfield players scoring at least one goal. But as much as handball is a team sport, there is always a player truly shining.
And Smits, who finished the season with 24 goals, was exactly the one who truly embodied Bietigheim’s spirit throughout the Energi Viborg EHF Finals. She might have scored only seven goals, but she was the defensive lynchpin who set the tone throughout the season for the German powerhouse.
When her name was announced as the recipient of the Most Valuable Player award of the Energi Viborg EHF Finals, Smits could not believe her ears.
“Was it really me? I did not expect to secure the MVP award, because we played so good as a team. I really could not have done it without my teammates,” says the 28-year-old left back, who is just finishing her second season at Bietigheim, after arriving from French powerhouse Metz Handball in the summer of 2020.
Her ascension was somewhat of a confirmation of the talent displayed in the French league, where she won the “Hope of the Year” award in 2016 and the All-Star left back award in 2018.
Yet for a team that prides itself on balance, Smits was hardly the player who stole the show, rather contributing quietly to the establishment of a 50-game winning streak dating to March 2021, when Bietigheim lost their last game.
“I do not think that Xenia played as many minutes as in the final against Viborg in the whole season. But we are really happy with what we have done and how everything unfolded. It was a perfect game,” says Bietigheim coach Markus Gaugisch.
Difficult moments and camaraderie
Indeed, Bietigheim announced themselves as the team to beat this season from the start of the group phase, when the German side dominated the reigning champions Les Neptunes de Nantes and fellow Energi Viborg EHF Finals participants CS Minaur Baia Mare, taking a clear 39:20 win against the latter.
Smits was an integral part of that success, both in attack and defence, sharing duties with Dutch backs Kelly Dulfer and Inger Smits.
“The beautiful thing in our team is the camaraderie and the way we complete each other. We all have different qualities, but we really work together as a team. Everything fits together perfectly and I think we deserve this trophy. Because we proved time and time how good we are on a given day,” says the Belgium-born German back.
Things might have turned out differently, however, for Bietigheim, were it not for Polish back Karolina Kudlacz-Gloc, who scored the winning goal in the semi-final against Herning-Ikast Handbold on Saturday with two seconds to go.
In that game, the German side had a seven-goal advantage cancelled, but they stood strong and pulled through. Both of Smits’ goals came in the second half, being scored in crucial moments.
“I would not say that those were the most difficult moments of our season. But we did it, right? This is what matters the most in the end,” she says.
Winning the EHF European League Women, the first ever international trophy for Bietigheim, means a lot for Smits and the whole German team. And right now, the plans for the future have been laid down.
Many players, including Smits, have another year at Bietigheim and the next focus will be the EHF Champions League Women, for which the German side are already qualified after securing the domestic title.
“I would lie if I said it is going to be easy. But we proved that we are strong. The Champions League is a totally different beast, however, so we need to get ready, to improve and we will see what happens.”
“However, if we are to play like this season, I think we will be a dangerous opponent for many teams. Like I said, when we are in top form, we can play good handball,” concludes Smits.
The top scorer stopped by Smits & Co.
A 31:20 home loss in the final of a European competition is painful for any team, but especially so for Viborg HK, who had never lost the final in the second-tier European competition.
Smits and fellow back Dulfer had a magnificent game in defence, stopping the free-flowing Viborg attack in their tracks. A team had not scored 20 goals or less in a final of the second-tier European competition since HC Zalau in the 2011/12 season against HC Lada.
Still, centre back Kristine Jörgensen scored five goals, taking her overall tally for the season to 72 goals — 11 more than Norwegian left wing Camilla Herrem, who finished second.
“I am truly disappointed about this loss. I would have given the top goal scorer award for the title all day long. But it is how it is,” says Jörgensen.
She was only one of the talented players that were halted by Bietigheim’s defence in general, and Smits in particular, this season.
“We will now enjoy the moments and see what the future brings us,” concludes Smits.