Uncertainty rules on the diamonds
Heidelberg's Joseph Patrick applies the tag to Ansbach's T.J. Propp in a doubleheader last season that the Lions won. Patrick and Heidelberg hope to go out winners this season just a few weeks before the school closes its doors for good.
Geography and frequent roster turnover dictate that coaches don’t always know a lot about opposing DODDS-Europe teams until they see them play.
This year, however, that truth extends to those coaches’ own teams.
Circumstances have conspired to shroud the approaching 2013 DODDS-Europe softball and baseball season behind a veil of mystery. Graduation has claimed large swaths of the continent’s talent base, leaving holes in lineups and batting orders in its wake. Unseasonable weather, meanwhile, has forced many practices into school gymnasiums, preventing rusty or inexperienced players from getting a feel for the diamond and coaches from evaluating their players.
This uncertainty follows in the wake of larger confusion over the still-unclear effects of sequestration. Concerns and rumors that the mandatory budget cuts would claim the spring seasons have proven unfounded to date. But the issue still hovers, and it set the season off on a funky note that is still warbling as a weather-ravaged opening weekend arrives.
Weather – and more significantly, the resulting sloppy field conditions – will disrupt an originally scheduled opening weekend of a combined 11 baseball and softball doubleheaders slated for Friday and Saturday. A more robust slate follows the next weekend.
With only two weeks of games before spring break arrives April 8, it’s likely this season won’t find its stride until mid-April at the earliest. In the meantime, here’s a look at the murky DODDS-Europe diamonds.
Consider the situation of Kaiserslautern softball coach John Culbreth as an apt example of the predicament affecting most of DODDS-Europe.
The Raiders lost three All-Europe players from last season, including catcher Melissa Bonano. Replacing a talented player at that difficult position would be challenging under any conditions, much less the current ones. He’s attempting to convert an outfielder to catcher, but monitoring progress is all but impossible; the hardwood of a basketball court is far from the dusty outdoor environment around home plate, and pitchers aren’t throwing off a mound. Meanwhile, he’s preoccupied with the steady return of All-Europe second baseperson Saige Isla, a senior recovering from the ACL injury that doomed Kaiserslautern’s postseason run last year. As for scouting his competition, he can base his game plans only on the names he recognizes from last year’s rosters.
“We haven’t had a whole lot of softball practice,” Culbreth said Wednesday as he prepared for a Saturday season opener against Lakenheath that was still unconfirmed. “The couple of times we’ve been inside the gym it’s really hard to establish anything.”
The Red Raiders’ archrival, defending champion Ramstein, boasts a more stable platform on which to build its 2013 season. There’s no mystery to playing against the Royals: the double threat of returning All-Europe pitchers Katherine Enyeart and Kelsey Freeman will make scoring runs an enormous challenge.
With a handful of programs barely fielding a nine-player lineup, there is a remote chance that a team or two will be forced to end its season early. That might necessitate combining Divisions II and III into a European tournament like the one played in DODDS-Europe baseball last season.
For now, however, each of the smaller divisions will crown a champion, leaving Division II Naples and Division III Rota to defend their titles.
The Wildcats and close runner-up AFNORTH will both be heard from again in 2013. Lions head coach Greg Blankenship likes his team’s chances behind a pair of standout returning pitchers in Morgan Beal and Madison Puckett.
In Division III, runner-up Alconbury will take another shot at the champion Admirals behind new coach Kurt Miller. The former softball coach at Lajes helmed the now-defunct Dragons baseball team last year and inherits a “good nucleus” of 10 returning contributors.
Whether that will be good enough is impossible to tell at this early stage.
“It’s kind of a hit-and-miss thing,” Miller said. “From year to year there can be pretty significant swings, especially for the smaller schools.
Bamberg, a strong third-place finisher in 2012, won’t field a team this season. Baumholder will slide down from Division II to take the Barons’ place; the Bucs hope to find better fortune at the small-school level after a one-win season at Division II last season.
Before sequestration and spring snowstorms shook the rest of DODDS-Europe, Heidelberg was already set for a surreal season.
The Lions’ “Last Roar” continues as the program fields its final baseball team before the school’s closure at year’s end. Coach Justin Bates said that All-Europe returning senior Joseph Patrick will be a fixture at first base, in the heart of the batting order and at the top of the pitching rotation as the team looks to craft a memorable final act.
Patrick and fellow returning contributors Jacob Parsons, Grady Mayfield and Noah Kiakona will be asked to raise their games to replace the production of graduated Stars and Stripes baseball Athlete of the Year Alex Weaver and the team’s five other lost starters. Bates noted that his team will focus on “manufacturing runs” in the absence of power hitters.
That assembly line will have to run flawlessly to keep up with its competition.
Patch, which beat Ramstein in a third consecutive DODDS-Europe Division I championship game last May, lost three of its five All-Europe performers, most notably ace pitcher Dylan Measells. But if the Panthers have proven anything over the course of their sustained run at the top, it’s that the program always has new talent nestled into perhaps the most substantial depth chart in DODDS-Europe.
That goes for their fiercest rival as well. Ramstein suffered its only loss of the season in the championship game against Patch, but is reeling from the loss of four All-Europe seniors. Like the Panthers, however, history indicates that the Royals have a knack for quickly healing the wounds of attrition.
But if ever there were a season for a wild-card contender, it’s this one. Vilseck lost just one player from a solid 2012 entry and boasts the young hotshot of DODDS-Europe in rising sophomore Johnny Bohnemann, a hard-hitting, strike-throwing game-changer who in 2012 was the rare freshman to earn All-Europe recognition. With only two Division III baseball programs active, the small schools will merge with Division II again to decide a second European championship. SHAPE is the incumbent and returns as much talent as it lost, making a second straight title a possibility. Powerhouse Bitburg, humbled by the Spartans’ quirky brand of small ball in 2012, will be looking for vengeance despite losing both of its All-Europe first-teamers to graduation.
The pervasive Italian rivalry between Vicenza and Naples carries implications for the title race.
Wildcats coach Jack Marlow is particularly optimistic with seven starters back from last year’s 14-3 squad and two promising stateside transfers in Dakota Bartley and Jonny Bray.