The Club Scene: Zenit St. Petersburg

Mar 06, 2017 by Print
The Club Scene: Zenit St. Petersburg

Zenit St. Petersburg may have missed its chance to reach the 7DAYS EuroCup Semifinals, but it already was the most-successful season in the competition for this club, which despite its relative organizational youth, is already representing its second city under a third name. Founded as Dynamo Moscow Region and later known as Triumph Lyubersty before it moved to St. Petersburg, the club has made itself relevant over the years by consistently employing big names in European basketball, such as Nenad Krstic, Alan Anderson, Stefan Markovic, Kerem Tunceri and Mire Chatman, to name a few. With star power leading the way and promising youngsters playing their way into the rotation, Coach Vasily Karasev has turned Zenit into a force to be reckoned with.

The club got its start in Lyubersty, in the northeast part of Moscow Region, when famous Russian singer Lev Leschenko had the idea to create a Dynamo club in Moscow Region. The name derived from the great Dynamo Moscow franchise so many Russians grew to love. With some help from the Moscow Region governor Boris Gromoviy, the new club was established in 2002, and it was named Dynamo RGAFK.

Even though it started from scratch, the club climbed to prominent status fast. In its first season, Dynamo RGAFK won the 2002-03 Russian Higher League, which became the first trophy in its cupboard. Even more important news came in July 2003 when the board of the Russian Superleague decided to expand to 14 teams for the 2003-04 season. That meant accepting four new teams into the elite division of Russian basketball, and Dynamo RGAFK Moscow Region was one of them.

The club shortened its name to Dynamo Moscow Region and immediately started competing on two fronts – in the Russian Superleague and the FIBA Europe Cup. With head coach Evgeni Kovalenko in charge and the experienced Johnny Taylor leading the way on the floor, the newcomer made noise by placing sixth in the Russian League before losing to Ural Great in the playoffs. Dynamo also had a memorable European debut as it reached the FIBA Europe Cup final four in Izmir, Turkey, although it didn't win a game that weekend.

Losing out on a trophy did not deter club management. For the following season, the club combined experienced domestic players like Nikita Morgunov and Valery Dayneko with big-name imports like Stevin Smith and Chuck Kornegay. And even though Dynamo chose as its home court the sports palace Olympisky in Chekhov, 70 kilometers away, few teams found a way to victory there. Dynamo's season was promising from the get-go as the team went on a 10-game unbeaten streak in the FIBA Europe Cup while also defeating the likes of Unics Kazan, Spartak St.Peterburg and Ural Great in the domestic competition. However, its Europe Cup run ended with a final four loss to another Russian team, Lokomotiv Rostov, and the team eventually dropped to seventh place in the Russian League standings before losing in three tight quarterfinal games to mighty Dynamo Moscow.

At the end of the 2004-05 season, Dynamo Moscow Region signed a two-year contract with Lithuanian head coach Rutjanis Paulauskas and in November 2005 opened the 3,500-seat Sport Palace in Lyubertsy. Over the next two seasons, the club tried its luck in the FIBA EuroCup, but managed only to reach the 2006-07 quarterfinals, where its season was ended by Estudiantes Madrid of Spain. Dynamo continued as regular in the Russian playoffs, but never managed to climb past the quarterfinal stage.

The club continued to grow as an organization and established a second team, junior sections and a women's team, however Dynamo Moscow Region was formally disbanded in June 2007. One month later, Triumph Lyubertsy Moscow Region was formed in its place. Even though the name and the logo were new, Triumph continued where its predecessor left off. Five players continued from the previous squad, but new management brought changes, which made the new club a serious competitor from the start in both the Russian and European arenas. A new head coach, legendary player Stanislav Eremin, arrived along with a host of stars, including Mire Chatman, Terrell Lyday, Ognjen Askrabic and Uros Slokar. The first season with a new name held some new challenges as well. Playing in the ULEB Cup for the first time, Triumph marched strongly, winning its regular season group before losing by 4 points over two games in the Last 32 round to Artland Dragons of Germany. Then, Triumph finished fourth in the Russian League before falling to Dynamo Moscow in the playoffs.

The beginning of the 2008-09 season had even more promise to it, as Nenad Krstic, Alan Anderson, Kerem Tunceri and Marcus Goree put on the white-and-blue jersey. However, soon after failing to qualify for a place in the EuroCup, financial problems struck again. Still, the team fought to make it to FIBA EuroChallenge and Russian Cup semifinals, as well as fifth place in the Russian League. In the summer of 2009, new president Roman Agapov turned Triumph in a new direction focused on domestic players and its own talent pool. Vasily Karasev, who joined Triumph in 2008, terminated his illustrious playing career at age 41 and started immediately coaching the club's reserve team. In hindsight, this proved to be an important moment in club history.

Eremin's squad returned to EuroCup and finished 3-3 in the regular season. It also placed seventh place in the Russian League after failing to get past the quarterfinals once again. The end of the 2009-10 season brought a first coaching change after three years, when Eremin was replaced by Valdemaras Chomicius, while Karasev assumed the position of assistant coach. Still rebuilding during an underwhelming 2010-11 season, Triumph lost in the EuroChallenge Qualifying Round to Lugano Tigers of Switzerland and placed 10th in the Russian League and thus missed the playoffs for the first time in club history. Eventually, in December 2011, Karasev took over as head coach and the club has been rejuvenated ever since.

In a short period, Karasev turned around the season by putting the reins of the team in the hands of Tywain McKee and his then 18-year old son, Sergey Karasev. With Jerry Jefferson becoming a force in the paint and Kyle Landry a consistent contributor, Triumph again reached the EuroChallenge final four, where it lost to Elan Chalon in the semis before finishing third. Triumph also took second place in the Baltic League regular season, but most impressive of all was its performance in the Russian League. Triumph finished third in the Russian League regular season, which secured the club's first appearance in the playoff semifinals, although BC Khimki Moscow Region was too high of a hurdle to overcome. In a series to decide third place, Triumph also lost its best-of-five series against Lokomotiv Kuban in four games.

Nonetheless, its performance secured Triumph a place in the 2012-13 EuroCup, and in the last few months, one despite being one of the competition's youngest teams, Triumph was an instant force. Strengthened by the additions of Tasamin Mitchell and Yuval Naimy, Triumph won all six of its games in a tough regular season group. McKee was twice named the Eurocup MVP of the Week and Sergey Karasev developed into one of the brightest teenage stars in the competition. However a 0-3 start to the Last 16 dug Coach Karasev's side a hole it could not climb out of. Triumph finished the season ranked sixth in the Russian League and reached the VTB United League round of 16, after which Sergey Karasev was named the league’s Young Player of the Year.

The following season featured Triumph going even further in the VTB League. With Cory Higgins starring in his first European experience and going on to lead the league in scoring (20.3 ppg.) and Dmitriy Kulagin taking Young Player of the Year honors, Triumph reached the quarterfinals before falling to Krasnye Krylia. But the main result recalled from that season was a march to the EuroChallenge title game before falling to Grissin Bon Reggio Emilia of Italy. That would be the last significant achievement for the team under the name Triumph.

In the summer of 2014, the club relocated some 700 kilometers to the northeast and resettled on the shores of the Baltic Sea in St. Petersburg. It took the name Zenit St. Petersburg, but retained the history of the Triumph Lyubertsy club and continued its place by competing in both the EuroCup and VTB League in its first season there. After winning a pair of road games in the Last 32, Walter Hodge and Kyle Landry led Zenit to the EuroCup Eighthfinals before it fell to eventual champion Khimki Moscow Region. Zenit then went 22-8 in the VTB League and placed fourth, but lost to Nizhny Novgorod in the quarterfinals.

Zenit’s tradition of winning continued last season when it won both its regular season and Last 32 groups in the EuroCup with Ryan Toolson finishing second in scoring (18.5 ppg.). Ultimately, took Zenit out in the eighthfinals. Then came a third-place finish in the VTB League, for which Vasily Karasev was named 2015-16 VTB Coach of the Year. Zenit swept Avtodor Saratov in the quarterfinals to make the semifinals for the first time ever, but lost the series against Unics Kazan in the maximum five games. This season, Zenit reloaded with Markovic signing and Sergey Karasev returning to the existing core. It was no surprise to see Zenit top its regular season group once again. Then came a perfect record at home in the Top 16 to reach the quarterfinals, where the team’s run came to an end at the hands of Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar. Despite that disappointment, Zenit still has plenty to play for as it is on pace to have home-court advantage in the VTB League playoffs. And the future looks bright in St. Petersburg.