DODDS-Europe soccer fans know that the gap between Division III and Division I is substantial.
So just imagine the leap Sigonella senior Alessandro Thomas is about to attempt.
Thomas, the centerpiece midfielder of the newly-crowned European champion Jaguars and 2014 Stars and Stripes boys soccer Athlete of the Year, is set to make the jump from tiny DODDS-Europe Division III school Sigonella to NCAA Division I DePaul University.
“Opposite ends of the spectrum, right?,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking.”
As large as the divisional system looms in DODDS-Europe, Thomas’ approaching transition from high school to college makes the difference between Sigonella and Ramstein, Division I’s largest school, seem petty.
Sigonella Middle/High School had 199 students registered in grades six through 12 as of May 16, according to DODEA data. DePaul enrolled 16,420 undergraduates in the fall of 2013. Thomas is part of an 18-person senior class at Sigonella, a smaller group than the 27 players on DePaul’s current men’s soccer roster.
Before stepping onto a larger stage, however, Thomas scripted a perfect end to his high school career. On May 22, Thomas celebrated a second divisional championship with the Jaguars, a proper bookend for the title he helped the team to as a freshman. He was named most valuable player of the Division III boys tournament. He’s a lock for his fourth All-Europe team in as many seasons.
But May 22 might have been a very different day for Thomas.
On an alternate timeline, Thomas would have stayed at Ramstein, where he spent part of his childhood, and suited up for the Royals alongside stars like Brienno Illari and Cameron Hansen. He would have led his undefeated Ramstein team onto the pitch for the prime-time slot in the day’s schedule of six European championship games, lining up against home-team Kaiserslautern and taking his place in DODDS-Europe’s most intense and historic rivalry. He would have celebrated with his Royal teammates when the whistle sounded on their Division I title.
But in reality, Thomas led his Jaguars, their tournament run not yet overshadowing their 0-4-2 regular season, into Thursday’s opening 10 a.m. time slot. They played Brussels in front of a smattering of fans, the burgers just starting to sizzle on the concession-stand grill, and won the title in DODDS-Europe’s smallest division.
Thomas thinks about what might have been. It seems silly for a player of Thomas’ caliber, a young athlete tested against formidable grown men in southern Italy and bound for a spot on a Big East Conference roster, to prove that he could have thrived at the higher levels of DODDS-Europe soccer. But he would have welcomed the opportunity.
“Sometimes I do think about, you know, what if I played D-1, what if I played D-2, how would I stand among the best teams in Europe?” Thomas said.
American Overseas School of Rome coach Niall Boyle said Thomas excelled at the rigorous Division II level in Italy, where teams like four-time European champion Marymount and his own Falcons squad produce the kind of competition that doomed Sigonella to its winless regular season.
“He would have been an important player for any team in Division II,” Boyle said.
In the end, however, the alternate timeline fades back into the realm of the hypothetical, and Thomas looks back over his career. He looks back at his Jaguar coaches and teammates, the tight circle of friends and classmates with whom he shares a unique small-school bond, and knows his high-school experience is exactly what it was supposed to be.
“It’s just something to think about. I cant change it. It’s just whatever,” Thomas said. “I love my D-3 team, I love Sigonella, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Looking at where his path is about to lead him, it’s hard to imagine why he’d want to.