Wiesbaden's Kiana Sterns drives up court in a game against Vicenza at last season's DODEA-Europe basketball championships in Wiesbaden, Germany, Feb.23, 2017.

Wiesbaden's Kiana Sterns drives up court in a game against Vicenza at last season's DODEA-Europe basketball championships in Wiesbaden, Germany, Feb.23, 2017. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

The 2017-18 DODEA-Europe girls basketball season opens this weekend with a compelling slate of openers, including a battle of reigning European champions and several key divisional battles.

The Stuttgart Panthers, who won their first European girls hoops title last year, will face Division II champ Black Forest Academy in the marquee matchup of the season’s first weekend, followed closely by Division I matchups at Kaiserslautern, Lakenheath and Wiesbaden.

The pre-holiday portion of the DODEA-Europe hoops schedule runs through Dec. 12. Play resumes on Jan. 10 and proceeds uninterrupted until the European tournament, set for Feb. 21-24 at Wiesbaden, Germany.

Division I The Panthers had a season for the ages last year. Their grip on the division never weakened, from an undefeated regular season to an undefeated tournament run capped by a title-game blowout of archrival and 2015-16 champion Ramstein.

While Stuttgart looks to duplicate last year’s dominance, resurgent contenders are gearing up to prevent another Panther walkover, starting with the runner-up Royals.

New Ramstein coach Spencer Bean has an interesting roster to work with, featuring a mix of returning standouts, including post Shemilia Johnson and guards Yhari Dupree and Elizabeth Noel, and fresh talent such as Baileigh McFall, a senior transfer from Spangdahlem, and promising freshman Reinha Williams.

Returning semifinalists Naples and Lakenheath figure to be factors again behind standout trios. Senior Jada Williamson, junior Victoria Sasse and sophomore Mia Rawlins give Naples a set of versatile, skilled leaders, while new Lakenheath coach Derek Wennersten has a solid trio to build around in guard Asha Snipes, wing Reese Estus and post Seraphian Roas.

As last year’s elite look to maintain their spots in the elimination round, a pair of displaced former champions will strive to rejoin the division’s top tier.

Kaiserslautern, which won the championship in 2013, produced winning overall and divisional records last year but quickly fell out of title contention with a pair of opening-day losses in the tournament. The Raiders bring an experienced group back for another shot, including high-scoring junior forward Le’Jhanique Brown.

Wiesbaden won consecutive championships in 2014 and 2015 before roster attrition sent the Warriors tumbling down the standings. They’ll look to restore their former glory behind the solid senior duo of Corban Jackson and Kiana Sterns.

A strong season by Vicenza, Vilseck or SHAPE could further disrupt the division’s established hierarchy. Vicenza will deploy a dangerous platoon of backcourt playmakers, Vilseck boasts good size and experience among its seven returning players and SHAPE leans on the stability of eight returning varsity contributors.

Division II The recent history of Division II girls basketball has been written largely by two schools - Black Forest Academy and Spangdahlem.

BFA has won three championships in the last five seasons, including a current two-year title streak. Spangdahlem, known until this year as Bitburg, owns two championships in the last five years. The two have played in the last three European championship games, including BFA’s 21-15 win in February.

BFA is likely to renew its reservation in the championship game. The Falcons have unrivalled size and skill in the post in the imposing form of seniors Katie Greathouse and Grace Wettstone and perimeter firepower from juniors Jessie Campbell, Kennedy Wilbanks and Becca Losey.

Spangdahlem will be hard-pressed to keep that appointment, however, as it looks to replace the production of McFall and powerhouse post Elise Rasmussen. If the Sentinels falter, several teams are poised to take their place, most notably returning semifinalists Bahrain and American Overseas School of Rome. AFNORTH coach Matthew Wise hopes to reap the rewards of starting four non-seniors a year ago and returning each for another run this winter, while Rota has a senior-heavy set of seven returning players eying an extended tournament run.

Division III The Sigonella Jaguars broke through for the 2017 divisional title after losing the championship game - in overtime, no less - in each of the three preceding seasons. Now that the Jaguars have finally broken that unpleasant streak, they might be due to start a happier one.

Sigonella has seven players back from last year’s championship roster, including senior Kristiana Wyrick and juniors Jessica Jacobs and Samantha Sanders, along with some welcome freshmen reinforcements in Averi Chandler and Sandra Bradley.

A Sigonella repeat would be unusual for the division. DODEA-Europe’s small-school ranks have produced four different champions in as many seasons, including Brussels in 2014, Baumholder in 2015 and Ansbach in 2016. Those three supplanted champions join Alconbury and Hohenfels as challengers in the tidy six-team division.

Twitter: @broomestripes

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