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As its 11th season opens Saturday, high school softball bears an uncanny resemblance to baseball’s second DODDS-Europe campaign. In a nutshell, last year’s champions return enough star power to make them the favorites again this year. But none of them — Ramstein of D-I, Naples of D-II or Hohenfels of D-III — has enough stardom to make it a runaway.

Here’s a division-by-division look at who’s who for 2010:

Division I: Six-time champion Ramstein defends its title without ace Maddy Byrd, whose family moved after her 9-0 season, which included two no-hitters. But the Royals, who have a feeder program rivaled only by Lakenheath and Patch, have three freshmen — pitcher-infielders Kayla Pauls and Kelsey Freeman and shortstop-centerfielder Vicky Simpson — who’ll make "a big impact," coach Kent Grosshuesch said in an e-mail. Ramstein also returns All-Europe senior Lindsey Jones, 6-0 as a pitcher and a .472-hitting shortstop; second-team All-Europe catcher-shortstop Becky Pletzer, a .413 batter who allowed just four stolen bases; and experience in third baseman Charnel Austin, second baseman Megan Stubblefield, outfielder-catcher Crystal Pletzer and outfielder Rachel Vroegendewey.

Lakenheath returns its No. 1 starter, All-Europe senior Ali Parkerson (9-1, .555 BA), along with outfielder Nicole McBride and second baseman Stephanie McAnallan, coach John Gilmore said in an e-mail. Like his rival Grosshuesch, Gilmore is relying on his feeder program.

"We will need to fill some key positions with players who haven’t played yet," Gilmore wrote, but added he expects his Lancers to contend again.

Patch, too, returns All-Europe quality in its effort to be the first team other than Ramstein and Lakenheath to win the D-I title.

Junior pitcher Bianca Lopez helped herself to a 4-1 record by batting .885 with seven homers in 2009, and will be joined this season by returnees Anne Wasson, Lauren Tannenbaum and Miranda Garst and some "up-and-coming" talent, according to volunteer assistant Larry Tannenbaum, who expects his team to challenge.

The rest of the division is largely under construction. Kaiserslautern’s John Cuthbert expects his team to be competitive behind power-hitting All-Europe outfielder Kaylin Hesler, but Heidelberg will rebuild without All-Europe catcher Courtney Milton, out for the year after knee surgery.

Division II: Taking on the likes of defending champion Naples and 2009 runner-up Bitburg, both with experienced lineups, might seem a daunting task, but new Hohenfels coach Beth Fitzgerald refuses to flinch.

Naples returns All-Europe senior catcher Tori Ward (.447 BA) and shortstop Caitlin Eckert (.362 BA), and Bitburg is poised for a run at a sixth title behind returning All-Europe seniors Alex Schmidt and Caitlynn Parks. But Hohenfels, the 2009 D-III champs which is moving up to D-II this year, has veteran players too.

"We’ve got plenty of talent," Fitzgerald said by telephone Tuesday. "We’re planning on keeping it going."

Leading the Tigers are senior All-Europe pitcher Mandy LaVanway and All-Europe batterymate Kayla Starnes, along with veteran first baseman Casey Leon.

Inexperience dominates most of the rest of the D-II field, but 2009 All-Europe pitcher-catcher-shortstop Brenda Broadwater is a player around which AFNORTH can build.

Division III: The four-team division splits right down the middle. Two of the teams, Incirlik and Rota, will spend most of the season playing intersquad games, while the other half of the field, Alconbury and Sigonella, mixes it up weekly in regional play against much larger schools.

Rota will get a shot at DODDS competition April 30-May 1 at Alconbury against the host team, Bitburg and Baumholder, but Incirlik, which has an experienced pitcher in Sydney Criado, will have to wait until Europeans to play for real.

Lady Hodjas’ coach Tracy Smith, however, plans to balance the difficulty of keeping up the players’ interest level with their first DODDS game 2 ½ months away against the chance to increase their skill level.

"The good thing about getting plenty of time as a young team…," Smith e-mailed last week, "(is that) we get time to break down the fundamentals and work from the ground up."

The results will be on display when all three divisions settle their championships May 27-29 at Ramstein and Kaiserslautern.

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