Alen Pajenk in action for Slovenia during the 2021 VNL

New head coach Mark Lebedew has gathered his players in Ljubljana as the Slovenian men's national team begin their preparations for the fourth edition of the Volleyball Nations League, which will take place from May 31 to July 24.

One of the best European teams in recent years impressed volleyball fans again last year when they claimed fourth place in their first VNL appearance. They also claimed their third silver medal in the last four CEV European Championships.

"We are all looking forward to the World Championships in Slovenia," said Lebedew. "Hosting the event is an ideal situation for us. The Volleyball Nations League is also very important as every game counts for the world rankings. We need to coordinate the two competitions and our preparations as wisely as possible. We are lucky to have a really good team and many good players, so we will try to do everything we can to qualify for the VNL Finals in Italy, but our priority is to have all the players in the best possible shape ahead of the World Championship."

The Australian coach is excited to start his work with so many talented players. Among them are four newcomers to the team, 21-year-old outside hitter Črtomir Bošnjak, 17-year-old opposite Nik Mujanovič, 25-year-old libero Alan Košenina and 18-year-old middle blocker Janž Janez Kržič.

"When I received the call from the head coach, I was surprised and honoured to become a part of the national team," said Kržič. "I will work hard, try to give my best and I intend to learn as much as I can from my idols."

One of those idols is Mitja Gasparini, who announced his retirement from the national team after last year's VNL tournament in Rimini and over 200 caps. The 37-years-old Slovenian, however, is now back with his teammates, is highly motivated for another chapter in his impressive career.

"After years of combining club and national team seasons, I was exhausted, and I couldn't see a way to help my team anymore," said Gasparini. "But now, the situation is different, the spark is back. I decided to return to the national team and aim for another great result together with the boys."

Another experienced Slovenian player, Alen Pajenk is also looking forward to some new challenges.

"We have new staff, a lot of new players and a completely new story to write. It is nice to see that there are new volleyball generations coming up and that there are players who can play at the highest level. We will help them fit into our team and get to know our system, but most importantly, we will teach them how to win," he said. "The main objective of this season will be the World Championship here in Slovenia, but we will also have to play the VNL at the highest level possible."

Lebedew started preparations with 13 players, who will all get a chance to prove themselves in the next few weeks. There will be some preparation matches to play too, while other players will have a bit more time to rest before the international season begins.

"I think this is a good solution," said Lebedew. "Each player has had a different season, some have just finished competitions, others are still playing and it was not possible for all of them to start their preparations at the same time. So we are starting with a much younger team, our focus at the beginning will be on the individuals and we will gradually increase the workload."

The Slovenian team will train in Ljubljana, where they will also play their first two preparatory matches against Croatia on May 20 and 21. The preparation period also includes friendly clashes with Serbia and Bulgaria ahead of the start of their VNL campaign in Brasilia on June 7.