Defending champs will have to overcome large turnover
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2017
DODEA-Europe’s three defending volleyball champions are in various states of rebuilding this fall, leaving a continent full of contenders in position to build a championship-worthy team to replace them.
The 2017 DODEA-Europe volleyball season opens Saturday with a full slate of matches stretching from England to southern Italy. The regular season runs just under two months, culminating with the annual European tournament Nov. 2 through 4 in the Kaiserslautern Military Community.
The Division I Stuttgart Panthers, Division II Spangdahlem Sentinels (formerly the Bitburg Barons), and the Division III Sigonella Jaguars will need to overcome considerable personnel losses and opponents eager to supplant them as they defend their respective titles.
Stuttgart has been in the situation before.
The Panthers put together a dominant title run in 2015, but lost all but a handful of the players responsible for it the next season. Regardless, Stuttgart rebuilt on the fly, formed another elite group of athletes and successfully defending its crown.
Stuttgart faces a similar scenario this fall as it chases a third straight title minus many of the leaders of the previous year’s championship roster. But the Panthers enjoy a reasonable level of continuity with four starters back, and middle hitters Carly Sharp and Meadau Cunningham and outside hitters Geneva Barriger and Bella Brandt provide a formidable foundation for the project.
Returning runner-up Ramstein and 2016 semifinalists Lakenheath and Naples again rank among Stuttgart’s fiercest rivals entering 2017.
Libero Cristeana Reyes, setter Kaela Gallagher and middle blocker Caroline Sobczak will serve as the senior leaders on a Ramstein team constructed largely from the program’s undefeated 2016 junior varsity squad.
Lakenheath has six returning varsity players, including standout junior outside hitter Maya Hagander, and faces a tougher than usual regular-season slate that should serve to prepare the team for the rigors of the European tournament.
Experienced hands Jilian Hudson, Marissa Dye and Natalia Woznicka headline a Naples team under the direction of first-year coach Cristina Hall.
Wiesbaden, the last team to win a European title before Stuttgart’s two-year reign, should also be heard from this fall, along with steady contenders SHAPE, Vilseck and Vicenza. Kaiserslautern will look to bounce back from a winless 2016 campaign.
The name isn’t the only thing that’s new for the reigning Division II European champions.
The former Bitburg Barons are now the Spangdahlem Sentinels after the school’s long-awaited move finally happened over the summer. As if to celebrate, Spangdahlem also waved goodbye to its entire starting volleyball lineup, including 2016 Stars and Stripes girls volleyball Athlete of the Year Elise Rasmussen.
“It is a very young team and there will be growing pains,” Sentinels coach Eric Vining said.
The new squad will form around a trio of captains that Vining hopes will “lead a rebuilding effort.” That core group includes sophomore setter Delcie Haney, sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter Kaleigh Brown and senior middle blocker/outside hitter Ashley Otto.
For all that’s changed, the defending champs’ traditional rivalry with Black Forest Academy should continue unabated. The Falcons reached last year’s European championship match and will make another run this year behind an experienced group led by junior middle hitter Jessie Campbell and senior libero Leah Kennedy.
Returning semifinalists Bahrain and Aviano, 2015 champion American Overseas School of Rome and former dynasty Rota join Spangdahlem and BFA on the short list of Division II title contenders.
Reigning champion Sigonella lost its program centerpiece upon the graduation of 2016 DODEA-Europe Female Athlete of the Year Kisiah Chandler. Runner-up Baumholder suffered the same fate with the graduation of multiple-sport star Eliyah Tillman.
Those schools have proved resilient in the past and could rebound quickly. But a pair of seasoned opponents are poised to supplant them atop Division III.
Brussels brings seven players back from its 2016 third-place group, including a pair of senior stars in setter Juliette Mobley and middle hitter Evin Harper. Fellow semifinalist Alconbury, meanwhile, welcomes five varsity starters back for another title shot.