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Finally over the hump after his Royals supplanted eight-time champion Heidelberg as European Division I boys champion, Ramstein coach Dan Nukala is enjoying the ride, all things considered.

“It is nice to be able to say, ‘We’re the defending champions,’” he wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. “Of course, that also brings additional challenges. But I suppose it’s more fun being the hunted than the hunter.”

Nukala thinks everyone’s in the hunt this year in the division.

“If you look at Division I, you’ll see that everyone lost a lot of good seniors from last season,” he wrote. “I think it’s going to be the usual Division I — rough, competitive and wide-open. Whoever is playing their best soccer at tournament time is going to win.”

In addition to his graduated seniors, Nukala also lost a good junior. Midfielder Tommy Appel-Schumacher is playing for Kaiserslautern’s A Jugend — top youth team — in lieu of a senior season with the Royals this year.

In fact, only one All-Europe first-teamer from 2005 is certain to be back this season, Collin Limes of Wiesbaden.

“He’s our best player,” said Wiesbaden coach Ben Arcila, who lamented the loss of All-Europe striker Lones Seiber — next season to be place-kicking for the University of Kentucky — and Jay Parker to transfer.

The losses continue in Division II, where two-time champion Black Forest Academy bid farewell to two-time European tournament MVP goalkeeper Scott Custer. Custer, a two-time All-European, shut out offensive juggernaut AFNORTH 2-0 in last May’s championship game.

AFNORTH also graduated much of its punch in Mike Kincaid and Pal Skaugen, who accounted for 34 goals and 26 assists last spring, leaving Division II a blank slate for 2006. However, early matchups Saturday — with SHAPE at AFNORTH and Mannheim at Bitburg — should leave a few marks on its surface.

Now that Ramstein has shown them the way, perhaps some school will end the Italian dominance of Division III. The American Overseas School of Rome has won the last three titles and six of the last seven. Its only loss over that span came in 2002 to Milan, last season’s Division IV champion.

That’s fine with Hohenfels coach Shawn Rodman.

“They’re like the Dream Team (in basketball) used to be,” he said of AOSR.

“Everyone kept gunning for them, and every year everyone got better and better. Eventually, the Dream Team lost.”

Rodman thinks the same process is at work here. “Last year, Rota gave them a good game,” he said of the Admirals’ 3-0 title-game loss to AOSR.

“People say that AOSR should play in a higher classification. My response to that is that they show up each week for basketball and get stomped. Why should we penalize them for playing well the game they’ve played all their lives?”

Rodman said his teams welcome playing the Italians.

“We want a chance to play them,” he said. “We want to put ourselves in a position to play against them.”

That positioning begins Saturday at 14 sites. There is a two-week pause after the April 1 games for spring break, then it’s full throttle toward the European tournaments May 17-20 at a site to be determined.

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