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Manomanista: Urrutikoetxea, Beroiz, Barriola and Jaunarena proceed

The first round proper of the Manomanista Championship took place last weekend. Sebastien Gonzalez withdrew from his match against Mikel Urrutikoetxea before the event with an injury, meaning that the latter goes through unopposed. He plays Xala in the next round. Each of the three matches which went ahead was very different, one close, one reasonably decisive and one a thrashing.

The closest match came on Saturday in Pamplona where Mikel Beroiz beat Joseba Ezkurdia 22-18, striking a rare blow for the defenders. This was a stunning advertisement for the game, with two young players showing the full gamut of their skills. The protagonists were evenly matched for the most part, but it was Beroiz’ devastating use of the volley which gave him the edge, ensuring the pace of the game remained high forcing Ezkurdia into scrapping defence. Beroiz proceeds to the next stage where he will face Jon Ander Albisu in a match to be held tomorrow in Tolosa.

Abel Barriola saw off Iker Arretxe with reasonable ease, winning 22-11 in Legazpia on Friday. Arretxe began the stronger, racing to a 5-0 lead, but Barriola’s patience and experience allowed him entry back into the game. Once he caught and passed his opponent there was rarely any doubt as to who was the better on the day. This is the third time that Arretxe has fallen at the first hurdle in the Manomanista. Barriola plays Retegi Bi in the next round, in Pamplona on Saturday.

It was a triumph of youth over experience in Eibar on Sunday as Jon Jaunarena thrashed Asier Olaizola 22-3. It took last year’s Promocion champion less than twenty three minutes to dismantle Olaizola, winning seventeen straight points from 5-3 to storm to the win. Olaizola made many mistakes, handing Jaunarena gifts at will, but this is not to take away from the latter’s utter domination, a further sure sign that he is a champion in the making at the highest level. He will play newly crowned Pairs champion Zabaleta on Sunday for a place in the quarters.

For all Manomanista fixtures and results, see Asegarce.

In the Promocion Championship, Elezkano II beat Rico IV 22-16, Untoria beat Ladis Galarza 22-10, Lemuno beat Tainta 22-5 and Olazabal beat Apezetxea 22-16. The fixtures for the coming weekend are here.

Iñaki Iza returns to the fronton after five month absence

Iñaki Iza returns to competition on Friday after a five month absence. He will play in Najera on Friday after overcoming a nerve problem in the biceps of his left arm which has seen him sidelined since 1st December. The Asgegarce defender, who hails from Amorebieta, has been training normally for three weeks and has decided to take the plunge and play. He will pair up with Olaetxea against Saralegi and Aretxabaleta. We wish him well!

Photo: mine

Pairs Final: Berasaluze’s dream ends in the blink of an eye

Martinez de Irujo and Zabaleta crowned Pairs champions after injury to Pablo Berasaluze

Sunday 28th April, Bilbao

Irujo and Zabaleta, the long-time tournament favourites were duly crowned as Pairs champions on Sunday, but not in the way that they or anybody else would have hoped. They came into the final very heavily fancied to take the crown but in their way stood a pair who had fought with an astonishing spirit, against all the odds to make it this far. Pure passion could have carried them to the title, with Berasaluze in inspired mood, playing better than ever he has in memory of his late father and determined to dedicate a txapela to him. However, we got a massive anti-climax and witnessed as near as one can possibly get to a sporting tragedy.

Bizkaia was full to the brim with excited and vocal fans, amongst them other pelotaris, former players, and stars of other sports. This sort of occasion is what pelota players live for, the zenith of their sports and the opportunity for greatness on the grandest stage. The match began in a way which lived up to the hype. The first rally was lengthy and packed with quality, with all four protagonists settling well into the melting pot of the final atmosphere. It was won by a skidding drop from Irujo, signalling the promise of great play to come. Albisu handed the Aspe pair a 2-0 lead by hitting high in the next point, but Zabaleta then erred to give the underdogs a start on the scoreboard. A service winner from Berasaluze and it was all square at 2-2. Irujo fired a lethal gantxo in the next play and an over-enthusiastic swipe from Berasaluze, who aimed to pressurise Zabaleta, made it 4-2. This became 5-2 with Albisu’s second high hit of the game but the momentum shifted rapidly with two masterful winners from Berasaluze, one a txoko and one a crafty shot down the wall. It was 5-4 with everything to play for. Both forwards looked on song and both backs, despite occasional errors looked mightily impressive and fairly evenly matched. We salivated at what was to come, but then everything fell apart.

As he ran towards the side wall to retrieve a dipping ball from Irujo, Berasaluze landed awkwardly on his left leg and then, attempting to put weight on it, fell in agony. Stunned silence descended on the fronton, punctuated by the stricken pelotari’s cries for help. It was clear, as he was helped off the playing area, that this injury was terminal. Within minutes, which felt like hours, it was confirmed that Berasaluze had likely snapped his Achilles tendon. It was game over and amid bewilderment and not a little shellshock, Irujo and Zabaleta were proclaimed champions with the battle only just begun. If they did not know how to react, the situation was even more baffling for Albisu, left high and dry in the biggest match of his career. He looked utterly helpless. At least for Albisu, however, there is plenty time to reach more finals; Berasaluze is reaching the end of his career and future chances may prove few and far between. His career had come down to this match, his chance to write his name in the history books after an extraordinary late flowering, but now all was lost.

The crowd did not know what to do either. Should they go or was there something to stay for? The organisers hastily ushered Xala, who had played in the curtain raiser, back onto the fronton and he played with Albisu in a strange shadow of what should have been the showpiece culmination of months of competition. There was nothing to play for other than to give the spectators something to watch for their money, and nobody’s heart, least of all Albisu’s, was remotely in it. For the record, Irujo and Zabaleta won.

There followed the presentation of the trophies and txapelas, to a tumultuous reception from the crowd, especially when Berasaluze hobbled out on crutches to soak up their cheers. It was both warming and heart rending. In this melting pot of emotions we must not fail to celebrate the achievements of Irujo and Zabaleta however. Despite the lack of competitive final, they were the best pair in the competition and deserved their spoils. Irujo had failed to win a major championship since the 2010 Cuatro y Medio and this was quite a resurgence. Alongside him, we must applaud to the rooftops the  achievements of Zabaleta, a tournament rookie who took to the big time as if he had always been there. The young defender had been carefully primed for the top level and he proved week upon week that this was where he belonged. He has a great future, of that there can be no doubt. As for Berasaluze, a scan confirmed the diagnosis and he will undergo surgery tomorrow. It is estimated he will be out of action for six months. We wish him all the very best.

Photo: mine

Presenting the Finalists: Martinez de Irujo and Zabaleta

Juan Martinez de Irujo Goñi is one of the defining pelotaris of his generation and there is little that has not been said about the greart forward. Irujo, now 31, hails from Ibero in Navarre and made his professional debut in Pamplona in 2003. He hit the ground running in dramatic style, becoming Manomanista champion within a year of his debut having already reached the Pairs final in the same year. Titles continued to fall at his feet, culminating in the apotheosis of 2006 when he won all three major championships. Irujo’s career has slowed down of late; he has not won a major title since 2010, partly due to a dip in his own form and partly to the extraordinary flourishing of Aimar Olaizola who has usurped him as the sport’s number one in the past three years. However, Irujo remains Irujo and he has played a blinder for the majority of this year’s Pairs, inspired to reach the heights by his young partner Zabaleta, himself on a golden path to the top. It is not an exaggeration to say that, along with Olaizola, Irujo has changed the style of the modern game. To watch these two greats play each other is to watch a virtual whirlwind. Such pace and relentless attack set the pattern that all others would have to try and follow. Irujo has bad days and can sometimes be the architect of his own demise but when on song he is extremely hard to stop. This task will fall largely to Berasaluze on Sunday. He has done it before but can he do it again on the biggest stage of all?

Pairs record
2004 with Lasa III, finalist
2005 with Goni III, winner
2006 with Eulate, winner
2007 with Goni III, quarter-finals
2009 with Goni III, winner
2010 with Beroiz, semi-finals
2011 with Merino II, semi-finals
2012 with Barriola, group stages

Previous professional titles
Pairs Championship in 2005, 2006 and 2009
Manomanista in 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010
Cuatro y Medio in 2006 and 2010

Jose Javier Zabaleta Lasa, who hails from the tiny Navarrese village of Etxarren, has been the revelation of the championship, though in truth his promise was so obvious that his rise is no big surprise. Zabaleta, who celebrated his 22nd birthday last month, made his professional debut in Eibar at the start of 2011 and impressed immediately. As an amateur he won the Campeonato de Lezo in 2009 and a year later took both the Federacion de Clubes Pairs title and the senior world title and given this pedigree, Aspe threw him into the Promocion Manomanista a few months later, where he lost to Olaetxea in a tight first round encounter. The following year he fell only at the semi-final stage, 21-22 to eventual winner Jaunarena. He missed out on selection for the Pairs with a broken arm in 2012, so the 2013 top tier championship is his first in the discipline at the professional level. He won his place on merit with a succession of outstanding performances against more experienced opposition and repaid the faith of his empresa from the word go. Zabaleta has looked older that his years, consistently inspired and constantly solid throughout the many weeks of the championship. He is quiet, polite and unassuming off the court and unflappable on it, and is clearly totally undaunted by both the massive chance and the great responsibility that comes in playing with Irujo. He is already destined for the bigtime and a win on Sunday would take him there with immediate effect. Whatever happens, 2013 has, so far, been the year of Zabaleta.

Pairs record
2013 is his first appearance

Previous professional titles

Photos: mine

Presenting the Finalists: Berasaluze II and Albisu

Pablo Berasaluze Zabala was born in 1977 in Berriz, a town of around 5000 inhabitants nestled between Durango and Zaldibar in Bizkaia. He made his professional debut in 1998 at the age of 20, at the Municipal Fronton of Bergara, after a successful amateur career which saw him take the Liga Vasca de Clubes title in 1994 and the Torneo El Diario Vasco pairs title in 1997. Although he has been a regular feature in the top flight of pelota for many years, Berasaluze has yet to win a major championship title. His Pairs Championship record is not a stellar one; he has reached the semi-finals on only two occasions in seven attempts, but the second of these appearances came last year with Albisu, his partner this time round. On that occasion they won only one of their semis in what was essentially a dead rubber against Titin III and Zabaleta (the latter replacing Merino II for the eventual champions). This year they have fought to the death and come through against all the odds, testament to the fighting spirit for which Berasaluze is famous. He plays with commitment and extraordinary verve, his small stature combined with his determination reminding one of a terrier at work. A terrific player who has bloomed late in his career, Berasaluze surely deserves at least one major championship txapela to show for his efforts and in the year when he changed his playing name from Berasaluze VIII to Berasaluze II in honour of his late father, a win on Sunday would be a fitting tribute.

Pairs record
2003 with Beloki, group stages
2004 with Zearra, group stages
2005 with Patxi Ruiz, group stages
2009 with Zearra, semi-finals
2010 with Begino, group stages
2011 with Apraiz, group stages
2012 with Albisu, semi-finals

Previous professional titles

Jon Ander Albisu is, at the age of 22, a pelotari just coming into his own. Regarded since the start of his career as a huge talent who could not find consistency, this tournament has represented a watershed; his playing has at times been erratic but at times inspired and coupled with the dynamism of Berasaluze his determination has seen him through. Albisu was born in Ataun, in the Goierri region of Gipuzkoa. He has an impressive amateur palmares which includes the Torneo del Antiguo pairs title in 2008, the championship of Euskadi individual titles in 2009 and 2010 and the GRAVN individual crown in 2010. These showings were enough to merit a contract with Asegarce, with whom he made his debut in July 2010 in Tolosa. A year later he took his only professional title to date, winning the Promocion Pairs Championship with Olaetxea, beating Gorka and Merino I in the final. In 2012 he was promoted to the top tier tournament, making the semi-finals with current partner Berasaluze. Whatever happens on Sunday, the 2013 Pairs final will be a defining moment in Albisu’s career, the moment he moved from promising young player to genuine title contender. He has shown a great deal of grit in this championship, absorbing much criticism in the press to come good when it matters. He will be scrutinised more than anyone else, for Asegarce’s victory bid rests on which Albisu takes to the fronton, the confident new star or the inconsistent youngster.

Pairs record
2012 with Berasaluze II, semi-finals

Previous professional titles
2011 Promocion Pairs Championship, with Olaetxea

Photos: mine

This weekend’s pelota, and a round-up

Once again, sorry for the silence over the past two weeks. In my absence, the Pairs Championship finalists have been decided: the final will be held on Sunday 28th April in Bilbao and will be between Martinez de Irujo  – Zabaleta and Berasaluze II – Albisu. The former pairing’s presence in the last two represents no surprise whatsoever, but Berasaluze and Albisu’s late charge for the prize has been unexpected. They lost their first semi final match to Beongoetxea and Beroiz but thereafter beat Olaizola II and Ibai Zabala 22-14. Then they defeated their opponents in the final by the same margin to seal their place. This result must fill them with confidence, but will lightning strike twice for the outsiders? Irujo and Zabaleta won their other two semis, beating Olaizola and Zabala 22-8 and Bengoetxea and Beroiz 22-13. In the dead rubber last weekend, Olaizola and Zabala signed off with a win, beating Bengoetxea and Beroiz 22-15. All the results from the competition up until this point are here and the semi final table is here.

In the Promocion championship, Rico IV and Untoria have sealed their place in the final despite a narrow loss to Tainta and Ladis Galarza last week. Gorka-Cecilio and Apezetxea-Larrinaga will play off for the other place in a sudden death encounter in Pamplona on Saturday. All the results are here with the current table here.

The first of two Aspe previews for the Manomanista Championship took place last week. Ezkurdia came through to beat Aritz Lasa 22-20, thereby sealing his place in the draw proper. In the the second preview which takes place tonight in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Zubieta takes on Merino II. Asegarce will hold a preview tomorrow between Arretxe II and Olaetxea, as well as a game between Elezkano II and Larunbe for entry into the Promocion manomanista.

Matches on ETB this weekend are:

Friday 19th April, Vitoria-Gasteiz


Followed by ZUBIETA v MERINO II Manomanista Preview

Sunday 21st April, Eibar



To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

Easter pelota on ETB

As well as the start of the Pairs Championship semi finals (the first is on Saturday and not on ETB, the second is available to watch on Monday), this weekend sees an innovation, a pairs 5 1/2 tournament. This competition involves Aspe pairs only in its inaugural run out, but may expand in the future.

Friday 29th March, Zarautz


Followed by IDOATE – LASKURAIN v JAUNARENA – ZUBIETA Zarautz 5 1/2 tournament semi final

Sunday 31st March, Zarautz


Followed by XALA – PENAGARIKANO v WINNERS OF 29th MARCH Zarautz 5 1/2 tournament final

Monday 1st April, Eibar


Followed by BERASALUZE II – ALBISU v BENGOETXEA VI – BEROIZ Pairs Championship semi final

To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

Berasaluze renews his contract and changes his sporting name

Asegarce today announced two pieces of news, both concerned with Pablo Berasaluze. Firstly, the forward from Berriz has renewed his contract with the empresa for another three years, keeping him in their service until 30 April 2016. In addition, Berasaluze has made a formal request to Asegarce, which has been accepted, to change his playing name to Berasaluze II in honour of his late father.

Pelota on ETB, 15th-17th March

Friday 15th March, Aizarnazabal


Followed by BENGOETXEA VI – BEROIZ v EZKURDIA  – ZUBIETA Pairs Championship

Sunday 17th March, Eibar


Followed by XALA – BARRIOLA v MARTINEZ DE IRUJO  – ZABALETA Pairs Championship

To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

The other Pairs Championship games are Titin III – Merino II v Berasaluze VIII – Albisu (Bilbao, Saturday) and Olaizola II – Ibai Zabala v Arretxe II – Begino (Pamplona, Saturday)

Pelota on ETB, 22nd-24th February

Friday 22nd February, Donibane-Garazi


Followed by TITIN III – MERINO II v XALA – BARRIOLA Pairs Championship

Sunday 24th February, Eibar



To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

The other Pairs games are Bengoetxea VI – Beroiz v Martinez de Irujo – Zabaleta (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Saturday) and Arretxe II – Begino v Ezkurdia – Zubieta (Pamplona, Saturday). In the Promocion, the big news is that Gorka is out injured for an estimated three weeks. He will be replaced by Aritz Lasa. The fixtures, other than the above, are Apezetxea-Larrinaga v Elezkano II-Larunbe (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Saturday), Aritz Lasa*-Cecilio v Tainta-Ladis Galarza (Pamplona, Saturday) and Olazabal-Arruti v Rico IV-Untoria (Eibar, Sunday).