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DODEA-Europe hoops teams gifted 12 days of basketball before Christmas

Kaiserslautern's Tre Potson, left, dunks the ball as Vilseck's Isaiah Hernandez watches at Vogelweh, Germany, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.

MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES

By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2017

Officially, the DODEA-Europe basketball games played in December count as part of the same regular season as those played in January and February. But in many ways, the brief two-week window between the winter season’s start and its annual holiday intermission is an entity all its own.

“The holiday break makes it feel like you are playing two completely different seasons,” said Matt McKown, coach of defending Division III boys champion Sigonella.

Following its usual template, the 2017-18 DODEA-Europe basketball season began Dec. 1-2 with a full Friday and Saturday slate. Another packed weekend is scheduled this Friday and Saturday, after which the courts largely go quiet for a month.

All told, there will be no regular-season basketball between Dec. 12 and Jan. 10, though some teams may participate in non-sanctioned tournaments during that time with whichever of their players are available over the holidays.

The real action is reserved for the other side of the holidays, when teams reconvene and launch an uninterrupted seven-week sprint to the Feb. 21-24 European championship tournaments.

“I think there’s basically a fresh start come January,” AFNORTH boys coach Justin Daugherty said. “That first set of games after coming back from the break will be more important to the tone of the season than any of the games before the break.”

December, however, does present an opportunity to instill and install more lasting qualities. Coaches do what they can to make productive use of the oddball opening weeks.

“More than wins and losses, the establishment of team roles and understanding what each member can contribute matters most in the long run,” Wiesbaden boys coach David Brown said. “The best teams are the ones who know their roles and play for each other.”

In fact, the team-building process often benefits from a dose of on-court adversity in the early going.

Wiesbaden girls coach Jim Campbell said a “slow start prior to the winter break can act as an incentive” for improvement. Vilseck boys coach Kelly Frappier is concerned primarily that “my team is improving” throughout the season, “win or lose.”.

History has proven this logic to be sound. Brown’s Warriors lost two of their first three games last season, but didn’t lose a regular-season game after Dec. 9 and advanced to the European championship game. McKown’s Sigonella squad absorbed two blowout losses against Vicenza last Dec. 2-3 to start a season that ended with a Division III championship.

“It is actually better if we struggle a little bit early on so our flaws are apparent and we know what we need to improve,” McKown said.

Along those lines, Naples girls coach Tim Smith appreciates the fact that his Wildcats see some of their “strongest opponents” in December, including Lakenheath and defending champion Stuttgart. While these tough early matchups offer a chance for Smith to evaluate his team, he won’t do so based strictly on the final scores.

“It gives us an idea of where we stand,” Smith said. “We want to win, but it’s not a tragedy if we lose. We want the competition and think this will help us later in the year.”

Early struggles aren’t always a prerequisite for success. Last year’s Stuttgart girls went undefeated before and after the break and cruised to a series of tournament blowouts and the Division I title. But Panthers coach Robin Hess remains wary of the long-term effects December can have on a team.

Losses in the opening weeks of a season can “really knock the wind out of a team’s sails,” Hess said. But teams that find success early can fall victim to complacency, which can turn dangerous as their rivals set to work addressing the shortcomings that were revealed through losses.

“Sometimes winning teams don’t realize that their opponents will improve throughout the year and games will get harder,” Hess said. “They sometimes also don’t realize that just because they won, they still have much to improve on.”

Andrew O’Connor, coach of the defending Division I champion Ramstein boys, simply wants his team to have an epiphany that he said “has to happen for a successful season.”

“At some during the season your team has a moment where everything comes together,” O’Connor said. “The team plays with passion and energy, and they combine that with execution,”

It doesn’t matter to O’Connor when that defining moment arrives, as long as it eventually does.

“Once that moment happens the players become completely invested in the season,” he said.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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