The Geelong “Vytis” sports club made history this month, participating in the 65th LAUNA (Lithuanian Athletic Union of North America) Sports Tournament in Cleveland, USA, on the weekend of June 4th-7th. This was a monumental event for the club, and for Lithuanians in general, as this is the year they celebrate 25 years of independence from Soviet occupation. It was also the first time any Australian-Lithuanian club has participated in the large North American-Lithuanian tournament.
Geelong “Vytis” was cordially welcomed by Laurynas Misevicius, president of the LAUNA organization, Peter Titas and the Cleveland “Zaibas” sports club, and the North American basketball community. Teams came from Hamilton, Detroit, NYC and Texas, with multiple teams and clubs from Toronto, Chicago and Cleveland. None caused a stir quite like Geelong “Vytis” with their kangaroo mascot “Vaclovas”, koala bears, and post-game cheering.
Due to the large Lithuanian communities in North America, the LAUNA sports event is divided into multiple events throughout the year. The June 4th weekend saw the main basketball tournament, with table tennis, chess and volleyball also being played. Golf, veteran basketball and other competitions are held as separate events throughout the year.
The Mens basketball is split into A and B divisions, with Mens A being highly competitive and played at a college level. Six teams were entered in Mens A in 2015 with Chicago “Lituanica” triumphing over Chicago “Juodkrante” for the gold. Toronto “Ausra” took third place.The Mens B division was contested by 12 teams, including Geelong “Vytis”. There are simply too many teams to play a full round robin, so teams are ranked after their first two games. The top six fight it out for the B trophy while the bottom 6 form a new C-Division.
Geelong “Vytis” began its campaign in Cleveland facing a talented Toronto “Ausra” in the opening match. A slow start saw “Vytis” trailing 12-24 at the half, but the game picked up and finished level at 55 points apiece. Three minutes of overtime saw “Ausra” finally prevail in an epic 59-61 nail-biter. Power forward Viktoras Zubrickas was the star of the show, defeating Geelong “Vytis” by 21 points while the Jaglowitz brothers, Mikas and Matas, did the damage for “Ausra”.
Next up “Vytis” faced Cleveland “Zaibas Green” in an early Saturday morning game. Unfortunately the team did not find their rhythm after another slow start and went down to the hot shooting locals 37-55, a score which does not reflect the closeness of this game. Rimi Statkus kept Geelong in the game, closing down the Cleveland 3 point sniper in the second half. A tournament-ending ankle injury to assistant coach Gintas Dirse soured the defeat further. Two opening losses meant “Vytis” was relegated into the C-Division with the bottom 6 teams from Mens-B.
Here they were able to win their first game against Cleveland “Zaibas White”, 58-54, on the back of some solid defending and fast break work from Kubilius cousins, Vidas and Rimi. The highlight of this game was matching up against Cleveland’s powerhouse centre, and former NFL star and Super Bowl winner, Joe Jurevicius. Joe was kind enough to shout us all a round at the bar after the game. Winning the game against the higher ranked “Zaibas White” put Geelong straight into the C championship game against “Zaibas Gold” who were able to win earlier in the day.
Saturday night was the welcome event at the very authentic Lithuanian American Club. Another opportunity for traditional potato pancakes and krupnikas with new friends and a live band. It also provided the chance to meet former LAUNA president, and long-time Chicago hero, Rimantas Dirvonis, who was a close friend of my late grandfather, Antanas Laukaitis. He was the leader of the American contingent who came to Australia for the 1988 World Lithuanian Games in Adelaide. This was obviously a sentimental moment for me as we reminisced about my grandfather “Diedukas”.
The C-championship was contested on Sunday June 7th before the A and B finals. There was no slow start for Geelong this time, hitting the court hard and running fast breaks to lead Cleveland “Gold” 15-26 at half-time. Tomas Ycas and Peter Stauskas led the way with some great perimeter shooting. Cleveland responded with consecutive three pointers in the second half to tie up the game at 55 with two minutes to go. Being stuck on 55 again wasn’t a fond memory from a few days before, and an Obeliunas-Fisher alley-oop and foul combination put “Vytis” ahead 61-58 to take out first place in C-division and 7th overall in B-grade – a respectable finish for our club who were under-sized throughout the tournament.
The games themselves were a fantastic social lubricator and advertisement for the club. We met Lithuanians from Portland to New York to Texas. People went out of their way to come and talk to us, or grab a photo with our kangaroo at the stadium, in the hotel and at the Lithuanian Club.
Participating in and being so kindly accepted at such a well-run international Lithuanian event makes me proud to be Lithuanian and even prouder to be part of Geelong “Vytis”.
The team was eligible for the North American competition because all of its members currently reside in Toronto. It would not have been possible to enter a team without the help of Toronto “Rezistencija” members – Gintas Dirse, Peter Stauskas, Viktoras Zubrickas and Peter Fisher and Toronto “Ausra” point guard, Tomas Ycas. We also had a dedicated cheering squad for each of our games with Viktorija Valaityte, Margot Lattanzi, Renata Simonaviciute and Andrea Kmielauskaite – a huge “thank you” goes out to all of these people.
Since resigning from ALFAS (Australian Lithuanian Sports Federation) in 2012, the club has sent participants and teams to the 9th World Lithuanian Games in Klaipeda in 2013, winning medals in golf and tennis; the 65th LAUNA Sports Festival in Cleveland in 2015, winning a medal in basketball, and continues to make the finals in local Geelong leagues. The next major international goal for the club is to participate at the 10th World Lithuanian Games in Kaunas in 2017.
Geelong “Vytis” realized many years ago that the club cannot survive with only Lithuanian members. We are a proudly multicultural club with a Lithuanian heart. “Vytis” has 6 teams registered in local competitions currently, more than most other Lithuanian clubs with much larger populations.
The Geelong “Vytis” Sports Club would like to thank the LAUNA organization, the Cleveland “Zaibas” sports club and the greater Cleveland Lithuanian community for welcoming our club and hosting a fantastic tournament. We were warmly received everywhere we went. Geelong “Vytis” looks forward to seeing their new American friends somewhere soon in the wide world of Lithuanian sports.
Our infamous kangaroo Vaclovas enjoyed it so much in Cleveland that he has found a new home with Peter Titas and Cleveland “Zaibas”.