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A new rule and new challenges for defending champs highlight the DODDS-Europe high school volleyball season, which opens Saturday.

Unlimited back-row substitution of a defensive specialist, termed a “libero,” is the new rule, adopted, according to Naples coach Eric Vining, to return some of the volley to volleyball.

“Since we went to power-point scoring [awarding a point each time the ball hits the floor rather than just to the serving team], it was noticed that most points ended with spikes,” he said Tuesday. “Allowing a defensive specialist to be substituted at will on the back row is an attempt to get more rallies started.”

Vining pointed out that the libero doesn’t count against a team’s eight substitutions per game, but she is restricted by not being allowed to serve or play on the front row.

He added that the libero’s defensive prowess could even help the power game it’s designed to offset. “[Defense] is the key,” he said. “If you can’t pass, you can’t set or spike.”

Saturday’s season openers include jamborees north of the Alps and four-way meets at Aviano and Naples in Italy, where changes at the top of Division II and III are most likely, according to Aviano coach Hans Hillestad.

His Saints, the reigning European D-2 champs, have won 68 straight matches against American Schools in Italy League foes in the past four seasons.

“That streak is pretty much in jeopardy,” said Hillestad, who returns just three players from last year’s unbeaten squad. “Naples is the team to beat. They’re totally stacked.”

Leading the way for Naples, according to Vining, are his co-captains, senior outside hitter Renna Damon and junior setter-outside hitter Kelsey Anderson, an All-Europe second-teamer last season at London Central.

Vining also can call on 6-foot junior middle blocker Shizue Reid and junior setter Martie Wagner.

Also in the D-II mix, according to Hillestad, are perennial power Black Forest Academy, led by Alison Woodward, and 2004 runner-up Patch, where All-Europe first-teamer Kasy’e Lalau, a junior outside hitter, teams with transfer Sherry Penn.

European Division III champion Ansbach graduated a pair of All-Europeans, leaving a fairly inexperienced team for new coach Patricia Limb and opening the way for contenders such as Baumholder, the 2004 runners-up, and Sigonella, a 2004 semifinalist.

In contrast to the player exodus at Ansbach and Aviano, Division I champion Heidelberg and Division IV titlist Alconbury enjoyed tranquil offseasons.

Rich Bennett, coach of Heidelberg’s two-time defending D-I champs, returns a pair of All-Europeans: senior outside hitters Natasha Holan and Julia Roberson.

Holan, Bennett said, “is as good a player as we’ve ever had. She’s a volleyball player exclusively.”

Also aiding Heidelberg in its quest for a fourth title in five years are junior middle blocker Courtney Buchwald and athletic junior setter Courtnee Sharpe.

Alconbury coach Emily Dreiling, up from JV duties to replace the rotated Lisa Westlake, welcomed seven seniors among the 23 players out for her squad.

Her Dragons lost All-Europeans Caitlin Laingen and Carly Bascom to graduation and transfer, respectively, but return seniors Aja Brown, Christine Fernandez, Rachel Moore, Mary-Beth Simmons, Ounie Pegues and Malia Haffner in their drive for another crown.

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