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This year’s high school volleyball race is wide open.

First, the players who dominated in the past — London Central’s Nicole Lassetter, Hohenfels’ Danielle Green and Bitburg’s Nadia Parker — have departed.

“We look on it as an opportunity to have others step up,” said London Central coach Susan Payne, whose team went unbeaten on its way to the European Division III crown last season behind Lassetter. “We’re focused on this season.”

Perhaps the biggest change this year will be that all schools will advance to the European tournament. Last year, Division III schools held regional qualifying tournaments to determine who got berths to the final tournament.

This year’s tournament will be held Nov. 4-5 in Kaiserslautern and Ramstein, Germany.

The change might have a big impact on 2003 European Division III runner-up Aviano, which takes a 56-game league winning streak into Saturday’s opener, at home against Vicenza, Livorno and Milan. Aviano and rival Naples will compete in Division II in the Europeans this year.

Coach Pam Hillestad is counting on returning stars AuBree Mariz, an 2003 All-Europe setter, and second-team 2003 All-Europe outside hitter Ashley Mead, MVP of last year’s Mediterranean Regional tournament, to keep the string going.

The elevation of Aviano and Naples came as something of a relief to at least one rival coach.

“This will be the first end-of-season tournament I have participated in that did not include Naples and Aviano,” said Sigonella coach Shawn McCarthy, who in the past has found his road to the Europeans blocked by those two perennial powers. “Though I have a tremendous amount of respect for Aviano, I will be looking forward to the prospect of meeting a team other than Aviano in the semifinals.”

If his Jaguars make the small schools semis, McCarthy said, it’ll be largely because of setter Whitney Lynch and hitter Liz Lally, who is a senior transfer from Japan.

Also powerful in Division III will be Alconbury, which returns seven or eight starters from last year’s III-North regional runners-up; Hohenfels, led by seniors Tiara Walz and Sommer Crean and junior Vanessa Velez, and senior-laden Brussels, which will lean on setter and captain Nicole Herway, Chelsea Blandford, Clarissa Bottesini, Becky Wilson and newcomer Amy Exner, according to coach Monica Mariano.

Among the big schools, Rich Bennett’s Division I champion Heidelberg Lady Lions graduated seven players in June, but is regrouping around All-Europe hitter Natasha Holan, a junior, and senior setter Jessica Palaschak. Also on the squad this year is transfer Heather Campbell, who posted nine kills for Division II champion SHAPE in last season’s European title game.

Bennett said his team doesn’t lack height — Holan is 5 feet 10, and Campbell and newcomer Jocelyn Barlow are 5-1l.

“One thing’s for certain,” Bennett said. “We’ll be spiking all the time.”

Ramstein, under Shanon Bryant, also graduated seven players from last year’s team, but will rely on four seniors — Katie Cordova, Victoria Apodaca, Heather Steele and Majel Braden — to defend the Lady Royals’ conference crown.

Würzburg, under the direction of coach David Arthur, will count on Suzanne Hamilton, the last remaining member of the Lady Wolves’ 2002 European championship team; while Wiesbaden’s Candie Lopez returns four players — Bridy Ferguson, Juliet Wells, Renee Franklin and Jolene Jennings — to integrate with a transfer from South Korea, Melissa Powell, and another from Texas, Britany Harris.

Among the old Division II schools, Bitburg has 34 players out, including seniors Erica Winters, Michelle Pineda, Rachael Bolduc and Ashley Price; while Hanau’s Susan Lloyd says her team gets strong net play from juniors Kyrie Bye-Nagel and Rachel Gordon.

Patch coach Todd Taylor lost six seniors from his Division II third-place team, but returns all-conference middle blocker Ehrin Hopkins, a 5-11 senior.

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