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Vicenza Cougars quarterback Lucas Ridgley breaks several tackles from smaller Naples Wildcats on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 at Naples.

Vicenza Cougars quarterback Lucas Ridgley breaks several tackles from smaller Naples Wildcats on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 at Naples. (Scott Wyland/Stars and Stripes)

This weekend’s 2019 DODEA-Europe Division II football semifinals would seem to have two clear favorites. But a closer look reveals that the outcomes might not be so obvious.

The top-seeded defending champion Aviano Saints host the fourth-seeded Naples Wildcats in one semifinal game Saturday, while the second-seeded Rota Admirals host the third-seeded Vicenza Cougars in the other.

Aviano and Rota are far more accomplished than their semifinal opponents.

The Saints have followed up the breakout championship season they enjoyed a year ago with an equally strong 2019 regular season. Aviano won all of its conference games this fall, wrapping up the unbeaten run with a 24-21 defeat of Rota on Oct. 19. The Admirals’ loss in their regular-season finale spoiled their own undefeated season, though they were already assured of a home semifinal entering the final weekend.

Vicenza and Naples, meanwhile, walked a far bumpier path to the playoffs. The Cougars’ two-game September win streak gave them the numbers they needed to crack the postseason, while Naples entered the last weekend of the regular season stuck in a winless last-place tie with SHAPE. The Wildcats rolled past the Spartans 39-7 to claim the fourth and final playoff berth in the five-team division.

Those respective narratives would logically end with Aviano and Rota advancing to the Nov. 2 European championship game. But when the Saints and Admirals shared the field with their less-heralded opponents this fall - coincidentally both on Sept. 14, the first weekend of the Division II conference season - the wins did not come so easily.

Aviano edged Naples 18-7 that day, while Rota knocked off Vicenza 18-6. The Cougars similarly threw a scare into Aviano when those two local Italian rivals clashed; Aviano escaped with a 25-22 win.

That kind of fierce competition was commonplace this fall in Division II, a newly streamlined division that lost two of its seven 2018 members and placed five incumbent teams into battle for four playoff berths. And it’s likely to continue this weekend with a pair of semifinals that just may be more unpredictable than the standings would suggest.

broome.gregory@stripes.com Twitter: @broomestripes


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