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MANNHEIM, Germany — All six champions return to defend their titles beginning Thursday when the Division I, II and III 2004 European high school basketball tournaments tip off at six sites in Mannheim and Heidelberg.

And the coaches of all six agree on one thing: They’re facing a challenge.

Division I boys

“There are five teams that could win Division I,” said Heidelberg coach Brad Shahan, whose unbeaten Lions are gunning for a fifth straight European crown. “Division I is much tougher this year.”

The teams with reasonable chances are top-seeded Heidelberg (10-0 in D-I), No. 2 Lakenheath (6-4), No. 3 Kaiserslautern (7-5), No. 4 Ramstein (7-5) and No. 5 Wiesbaden (6-6).

Shahan doesn’t think there’ll be any particular pressure on his team because of the streak.

“When the season started, we didn’t have going undefeated as one of our goals,” he said. “Our goal was to win one game at a time, and that’s what we’ll try to do in the tournament.”

Division II boys

That strategy would certainly satisfy SHAPE coach Mike Vargas, whose D-II champion Spartans have endured an up-and-down 9-5 season that earned them the third seed for this year’s event.

Hanau (12-2) is No.1 and Patch (11-3) is No. 2, and SHAPE split with both during the season.

“We’re like the X-factor,” Vargas joked. “I never know which team is going to show up. When we’re on, we’re on, and when we’re off, we’re way off.”

Vargas cited Friday’s 54-53 loss to Vilseck (5-9) as an example.

“In the last 10 seconds, we put up eight shots,” he said. “Eight shots, and none of them would drop. The next day, our shots fell, and we won easily.”

Division III boys

If Charles Jordan’s Barons want to make it three in a row, they’ll have to do it quickly.

“We have two days to play our tournament,” he said of the six-team D-III event. “Everyone else has three.”

The D-III format divides the teams into three-team pools. Each team plays two games on Thursday to determine the pool standings. Third-place and semifinals games then occupy Friday morning, with the D-III title games scheduled for Friday night.

For the D-III South regular-season champions to get there, speed is of the essence.

“We’re really quick,” Jordan said. “We don’t have a big man like some other teams, so we rely on other things.”

Bamberg is pooled with American Schools in Italy League and Mediterranean Regional runner-up Aviano and III-North Regional champion and conference runner-up London Central.

In the other pool are ASIL and Med Regional champ Naples, III-North regional runner-up Rota, and III-South Regional champion Ansbach.

Division I girls

Ramstein’s top-seeded girls (11-1 in D-1) are taking momentum gained from Friday’s 61-47 victory over previously unbeaten Heidelberg into their quest for a fourth straight European crown, according to coach Cecilia Grosselin.

“We played really well as a team,” she said. “They really wanted to win that one.”

Heidelberg (9-1) is No. 2, followed by Lakenheath (8-2) and Kaiserslautern (6-6).

Division II girls

For the second season in a row, Denny Lemmon’s Bitburg Lady Barons (11-3) come into the Europeans as the defending champion but not the No. 1 seed.

Just as it did last year, the No. 1 falls to Hanau (13-1).

Bitburg, however, was the No. 5 in 2003, and ended up winning its third straight European title behind All-Europe center Nadia Parker. The lesson wasn’t lost on Lemmon.

“You have to respect any team you face,” he said. “I believe a team that finds itself shooting in the hot zone could easily upset those higher-seeded teams.”

Division III girls

No defending champion faces a bigger challenge than the Baumholder Lady Bucs.

But that’s fine with coach Carter Hollenbeck. His team, which punched its ticket to Mannheim by placing second to league and regional champion Ansbach in the III-South regional, had to overcome a serious challenge just to make the field.

“We lost [All-Europe forward Tiffany McNeil] to a ruptured ACL,” he said. “Since she’s been out, we’ve had to learn to play as a team. In four games, we’ve had four different leading scorers and four different leading rebounders. Everyone had to step up.”

Baumholder is pooled with a pair of D-III powerhouses, Med Regional champ Naples (13-1) and III-North regional champ Rota, which knocked off previously unbeaten London Central to win that event.

“We probably have the worst record (10-6) of anyone in the tournament,” Hollenbeck said, “but at one time we were 5-5. Any team that makes the tournament is an outstanding team.”

Play begins at 9 a.m. Thursday at six sites — the Benjamin Franklin Village Sports Arena and Sullivan and Coleman Barracks gyms in Mannheim, the high school and Patton Barracks gyms in Heidelberg and the Tompkins Barracks gym in Schwetzingen.

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