Defending champions looking for more titles
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 31, 2012
The hierarchy of DODDS-Europe volleyball was well-established at the start of the 2012 season. A strong defending champion presided over each of the three divisions, all equally well-positioned to defend those titles.
And though the ensuing fall season featured plenty of great matches, it also solidified the prevailing power structure. The three champions - Division I Ramstein, Division II Naples, and Division III Rota - posted undefeated regular seasons and took their places atop the brackets for this week’s DoDDS European volleyball championships. If this season is to diverge from its status-quo script, someone else will need to come up big this week. Pool play is Thursday and Friday at Ramstein Southside Fitness Center and Kaiserslautern High School; championship matches are set for Southside on Saturday.
Here’s a look at the potential for regime change in each division:
Defending champion Ramstein turned in a perfect regular season, making the Royals the team to beat entering the postseason. But talented 6-footers patrol the net for a number of teams in the field, and it’s no foregone conclusion that Ramstein’s reign will survive the weekend.
“This season has shown a lot more action at the net, with strong hitting and tough blocking,” Royals coach Erin Markus wrote in an email. “When any of the towers of Europe take the court, you know it’s going to be a good game.”
Two Division I rivals gave the Royals intense five-set matches over the course of the fall, suggesting that the margin between champion and challenger is extremely thin. No. 2 seed Lakenheath and third-seeded Patch each flirted with upsets, and are anxious for a higher-stakes shot at Ramstein.
The Panthers and Lancers are worthy pursuers and potential champions. Each team went unbeaten save for those narrow losses to Ramstein, and each has spent the meantime sharpening their games. Saturday’s regular-season finales saw both teams earn the kind of gritty victories that can benefit title contenders in the anxious days before the playoffs.
Lakenheath passed a test from Division III Alconbury, winning three straight sets after dropping the first. Patch was pushed even further by Schweinfurt, which took the match’s first two sets before Patch claimed a marathon five-set decision.
The experience gained from such matches can sometimes flip a few decisive points in a team’s favor in the postseason. For Lakenheath, Patch, host team Kaiserslautern (8-3) and the field’s other contenders, the time has arrived to act on a season’s worth of lessons learned.
Like Ramstein, Naples finished last season the class of its division and spent an unbeaten fall reiterating that point. The Wildcats never dropped a set in 12 matches and rarely even allowed their opponents to join them with a score in the 20s.
But even a dominant season can end in disappointment. With some 1,300 kilometers separating the schools, Naples never shared a court with Ansbach, the impressive 11-1 squad that represents the field’s best chance of preventing another Wildcat title. The Cougars lost only a five-set heartbreaker to Division I Patch in the regular season.
That’s not the only warning flag flying for Naples. At 13 teams, Division II represents the deep end of pool play, and with the added teams comes added potential for chaos. That works against the frontrunner and in the favor of capable teams like Vicenza, American Overseas School of Rome, and Bitburg, each of whom boasts talent and a winning record.
Led by reigning Stars and Stripes player of the year Aspen Luna, defending champion Rota cruised to straight-set victories in each of its four regular-season matches and projects to carry that trend through to another D-III crown.
A strong Alconbury squad gave the Admirals a measure of trouble in the regular season and is the strongest candidate to prevent a Rota romp. The teams met on consecutive days this fall; Rota took a leisurely 25-11, 25-17, 25-13 win on Oct. 5, but struggled to put down the Dragons a day later in a hard-fought 25-12, 25-21, 29-27 victory. Second-seeded Alconbury might tap the confidence built in that later effort to fuel a run through pool play and an upset bid Saturday against Rota.
Still, a Rota victory remains the default outcome until proven otherwise. Luna has wrapped her hands around every trophy available to her over the first half of her prep career, and she’s only grown more dominant this year. It will take masterful strategy and execution from a breakout member of the field to prevent more hardware from heading her way.
AFNORTH's Madison Puckett tries to get the ball over the net against the defense of Bitburg's Brandy Oliver, center, and Allison Lillemon, in a match in Kaiserslautern on Sept. 22. Both teams will be competing in Division II when the DODDS-Europe volleyball championships that get under way Thursday in the Kaiserslautern Military Community.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES