This Saturday morning will see Zalgiris go for glory in a cup final. Not a huge shock but this isn’t the Kaunas club, instead it’s Leixlip Zalgiris who are taking the floor. Emmet Ryan on the big named club making waves in Ireland
Once a tiny rural village in Co. Kildare with around 2,000 people in it, including its hinterland, Leixlip is one of the success stories of the commuter belt around Dublin. With 5,000 people working at the Intel campus there, the town has expanded rapidly from the 1980s. There was a time when its police station was a one-room office that was only open two days a week. The growth of the town has seen all that change, with seriously good transport links to Dublin city and a community that attracted workers from all over the continent.
Despite all that, it wasn’t known as a basketball town. The last two seasons has seen that change in a couple of ways. A year ago it was Liffey Celtics who climbed high, reaching the Irish women’s cup final for the first time ever. This year it’s a bit of a different story.
BC Leixlip Zalgiris has, as you might expect, drawn heavily on the local Lithuanian community with players coming together from west Dublin and other towns in Kildare. The club has been on the go for 10 years and plays in the top flight of the local league in Dublin. This Saturday however they are going to draw the eyes of the nation along with a lot of folk back in Lithuania.
Leixlip Zalgiris will play Blue Demons in the NICC Cup Final, essentially the third tier cup final in Ireland, on Saturday. It’s a tough challenge for the side, with Demons having lifted the trophy a year ago, but a massive opportunity to steal the spotlight.
The club changed its name to add the Zalgiris suffix for this season, when Darijus Pencila got the idea to follow along the lines of several other clubs in Europe by adopting the moniker of the Kaunas club.
Despite the name, it’s not a purely Zalgiris fanbase that makes up the roster, as club chairperson Eugenijus Pocius told BallinEurope.
“It’s funny, the majority of the players are from Klaipeda but Darijus is a representative of Zalgiris in Ireland. His goal is to promote basketball here and spread the news about the Zalgiris Kaunas club. Zalgiris wanted to have a team in Ireland because they have teams in Switzerland and Germany, these small clubs that represent them,” said Pocius.
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Support for the side has been coming in from far and wide. Last week the Lithuanian embassy in Dublin posted a message of support for the side and the mothership in Kaunas has sent on its kind words too.
“It is impressive given that we only changed the name this year. It’s very appealing to Lithuanians as they are the most famous club in Lithuania, 70 per cent of people in Lithuania support them. Changing the name has attracted so many supporters,” said Pocius.
As with any local level club, Pocius isn’t just the chairperson. He’s a manager, works on the finances, and whatever other job is needed, all while handling his day job as a trainee solicitor.
Remarkably, none of the Leixlip club’s roster work with Intel. That’s as much a sign of the impact such a big club can have on the hinterland, while Intel made the town matter it also led to plenty of other businesses popping up because when a company opens a plant that big, it’s going to require other stuff. Leixlip has now grown to a population of 15,500 in the town.
That growth has been good for the club as it has developed over the past decade. A year ago it won the Dublin league title but suffered semi final defeat in the cup and Top Four competitions. Now, with a new name, it’s going for a national title for the first time.
“We’ve been preparing hard. We’ve had some good training sessions, working our plays out and adding a few more. We’ve had the chance to analyse the Blue Demons team as well, we are going to have to make some adjustments for their main players,” said Pocius.
“We have been promoting the final and we’re hoping to bring a good crowd. There’s so many people interested in attending.”
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While the local Lithuanian community in Ireland is substantial, there will be plenty of folk across Lithuania tuning in as well. Saturday’s final is being streamed on YouTube. Pocius said the increase in the number of streams of games across all levels in Ireland had been a huge boost for the side in recent years.
“Basketball Ireland has done a great thing in broadcasting games on Facebook and YouTube. It definitely helps. All of our relatives and friends will be watching.”
As it stands the club fields two sides, with a second team playing in Division 5 of the Dublin leagues. This cup final appearance however presents an opportunity for growth to Leixlip Zalgiris. The club is looking to link up with a local underage basketball club to create a youth set-up under the Zalgiris name and build on the progress that has been made so far.
On Saturday, the future can wait. It’s all about beating Demons.
Leixlip Zalgiris vs Blue Demons in the NICC Cup Final will be streamed live on Basketball Ireland’s YouTube channel this Saturday at 10am Irish time/ 12 noon Lithuanian time.
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