Eight teams face final hurdles to title games
October 27, 2016
Four 2016 DODEA-Europe football finalists will be determined this weekend as the Division I and II semifinals play out at Ansbach, Rota, Ramstein and Wiesbaden. Here’s a look at the four matchups.
Division IVilseck at Wiesbaden: The Falcons and Warriors have been the primary producers of the drama that has defined another deeply competitive and unpredictable season of Division I football. On Saturday, they’ll provide another installment.
On Oct. 15, Vilseck’s 14-7 defeat of Wiesbaden handed the Warriors their second straight loss and put them at risk of missing the playoffs entirely.
A week later, regular-season finale wins by both the Falcons and Warriors conspired to instead exclude reigning champion Stuttgart from the postseason and create a three-way tie for second place.
The math that resolved that situation placed Vilseck in the unusual position of losing a tiebreaker to a team it beat in the regular season, and playing a semifinal on that team’s home field.
But after missing last year’s playoffs on another final-day tiebreaker, the Falcons aren’t bemoaning their hard luck. They’re poised to seize their opportunity.
“This is the playoffs,” Vilseck coach Jim Hall said. “Anything can happen.”
Wiesbaden coach Steve Jewell vividly recalls the challenges the Falcons present. He cites star wide receiver Xavier Scott and a “passing game that can score in a flash” and a “strong running game” led by Cameron Downs, worthy counterparts to Wiesbaden’s own game-changing offensive duo of running backs Chris Hobson and Josh Theodore.
“Vilseck is big, fast, strong and well-coached,” Jewell said. “All of those things are a major concern.”
Lakenheath at Ramstein: Top seed Ramstein has home-field advantage against No. 4 seed Lakenheath on Saturday. The Royals are the biggest school in DODEA-Europe by population size, while Lakenheath is the smallest school in Division I football by that measure. Ramstein blanked Lakenheath 25-0 when the teams met just three weeks ago.
All of that would seem to make the Royals the favorites and the Lancers the underdogs.
But neither coach agrees with that assertion.
“We are talented enough to give Ramstein a game,” Lakenheath coach John Mitchell said. “And win.”
Ramstein coach Carter Hollenbeck doesn’t dispute that point.
“When it comes to the playoffs there are no advantages,” Hollenbeck said. “On any given day, one team can beat the other.”
Lakenheath will lean heavily on star running back Marcus Smith, who ran for 206 yards against Ramstein on Oct. 8; Mitchell called Smith “the best running back” in Division I. The Royals will counter with a more diversified offense featuring Sid Boggs, Brendan Hicks and quarterback Trevor Miller.
If the Lancers are able to find the end zone, they could earn a chance to play for their first-ever Division I football championship.
“When our defense is on,” Mitchell said. “We can compete with anyone in the league.”
Division IINaples at Rota: It seems straightforward enough.
Rota is undefeated, a win away from a second straight appearance in the Division II European championship game and playing in front of what should be a raucous Friday-night home crowd. Naples has lost twice this season and will have sacrificed a chunk of its practice week to travel from southern Italy to the coast of Spain.
Also, Rota beat Naples, 27-12, in each team’s non-conference season opener.
But it might not be that simple.
While Rota has been coasting through a string of lopsided victories, Naples has been in the trenches all season. A week after challenging Rota, the Wildcats flirted with an upset of two-time defending champion Ansbach in a gritty 22-12 loss. They haven’t lost since, grinding out close wins over Vicenza and Hohenfels to secure second place and a home quarterfinal.
First-year Naples head coach Jim Davis attributes the success and to the team’s core of captains, KC Evans, Tommy Menoni, Terrell Staten and Frank Mastroianni.
“(They) have had an impact growing as leaders this year,” Davis said. “They have been great from the start.”
They’ll have to continue to be great to knock off an Admiral team determined to claim the title that eluded it a year ago. The Admirals have seen nothing but blowouts since surviving Bitburg 34-29 on Sept. 24, including a quarterfinal rout of SHAPE a week ago. While the month-long lull could affect the team’s sharpness, it’s also allowed for a lighter workload for key players such as Sam Gallardo, Jake Anderson and De’Ontae Bradley.
“In the past four games our starters have not played a down in the second half. That means we are much healthier than at this time last year.,” Rota coach Ken Walter said. “Our kids have really started clicking and are executing at a high level in all phases of the game.”
Bitburg at Ansbach: Long the gold standard of Division II football, the Barons and Cougars are now left to fight amongst themselves for a chance at a championship. Rota’s recent rise to prominence left Bitburg the No. 2 seed in its region for the second straight year. And for a second straight year, the Barons will meet a Cougar team playing to extend a championship reign.
Both teams are bracing for an epic clash.
“We are looking at the toughest game of our season so far,” said Ansbach coach Stephen Choate, who replaced legendary Cougar coach Marcus George this summer and led the program to an undefeated regular season. “Our coaching staff has been working overtime to prepare for them.”
Bitburg coach Mike Laue knows his team’s margin for error is slim. .
“Their players know how to win,” Laue said. “We must keep our mistakes to a minimum.”
Ansbach is proving persistently dominant despite its shrinking student base. This year’s Cougars deploy a versatile offensive attack featuring playmakers such as Ogden Andrew, Hiromi Iglesias and Ramon Peguero and a tough defense led by Joxua Baughman.
Bitburg has paired its usual hard-nosed defense with an explosive offense helmed by quarterback Eli Canaan and featuring a squadron of ballcarriers including Jimmie Montgomery and Tyriq Zvijer.