Battle's on to capture Royals' crown
Asked to identify the primary threats to his team’s DODDS-Europe Division I football championship reign, Ramstein head coach Carlos Amponin offered a simple but revealing answer: “Everyone.”
That’s not glibness from a coach denying his opponents bulletin-board motivation. It’s a sentiment shared from top to bottom of this year’s streamlined set of DODDS-Europe’s largest schools, a six-team field that should infuse every week of its brief schedule with fierce competition.
A tumultuous summer of DODDS-Europe cost-cutting and realignment sent many smaller football programs scrambling. But those same decisions have left Division I football, the highest level of perhaps DODDS-Europe’s most-followed sport, in pretty much the same place.
On paper, at least, the field is defined by its parity. The schedule is straightforward, with each of the division’s six teams playing the other five once apiece. The postseason features two semifinals on Oct. 26, then a championship game Nov. 2 at Kaiserslautern’s attractive new stadium. In between, schools play games against non-DODDS opponents, as they did to open their fall slates last weekend.
This weekend, the schools share common gridirons for the first time. Patch visits Wiesbaden on Friday evening to open the season; on Saturday, defending champion Ramstein visits Lakenheath while Vilseck hosts Kaiserslautern.
Each team will carry justifiable hopes into their respective openers.
Patch is in the midst of a gradual ascent that in recent years has led to a European championship. The three most-recent Division I champions – Ramstein in 2012, Wiesbaden in 2011, and Heidelberg in 2010 – followed a three-year pattern of first losing in the semifinals, then losing in the European championship game, then winning the title. Patch reached the semifinals two years ago and fell to Ramstein in last year’s European final.
Wiesbaden’s one-win 2012 season appears to be a statistical anomaly. The traditional power figures to resume contention this year, boosted by reinforcements from closed Heidelberg.
Ramstein, DODDS-Europe’s most populous high school, exploits its student base and healthy youth football scene to consistently funnel new talent into Royal blue. The program is functioning at a level where it can mitigate the loss of three All-Europeans by returning five others.
Lakenheath returns 10 starters, second-most to Wiesbaden in Division I, in hopes of building on the progress made last season. And the Lancers will play three of five games at home, including games against finalists Ramstein and Patch, after those Germany-based teams step off a bus rides across the English Channel.
Vilseck has a well-deserved reputation as the team nobody enjoys playing against. The Falcons’ hard-hitting style makes them a weekly candidate to wear down any more-talented team that’s not ready to absorb that kind of punishment.
And for a team that hasn’t won a game in two years, Kaiserslautern certainly gets a lot of attention from D-I foes. The Raiders’ growing student population, stable coaching situation and brand-new facilities all seem to suggest an upward swing.
The postseason awaits four of these six teams; the other two will have to muster fresh optimism again next fall.