Wiesbaden's Keira Banuelos defends against the Lakenheath serve during a game in Wiesbaden on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Wiesbaden's Keira Banuelos defends against the Lakenheath serve during a game in Wiesbaden on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. (David Edge/Stars and Stripes)

The Wiesbaden, Aviano and Ansbach girls volleyball teams have a few things in common. 

For one, each has one loss to its name — Wiesbaden to Stuttgart and Aviano and Ansbach to each other. Another commonality comes in the fact the three squads enter as the top seeds in their respective divisions for the DODEA European championships in the Kaiserslautern Military Community starting Thursday. 

Also, the coaches of the three squads didn’t expect to be those positions at the beginning of the season. 

“If you would have asked me this in June … I knew we were going to be competitive; I didn’t know we’d be this good,” Ansbach coach Deb Keller-Mitchell said. “The girls have put in a lot of work, and they’re doing everything that I asked them to.” 

Of the three, Aviano came in with the highest prospects, returning five players from last season’s runner-up squad in Division II, including three starters. 

Coach Michael Gros took it upon himself to find the missing pieces in the offseason, and he found them in middle hitters Sophia Fisher and Kayla Graney. The addition of those two allowed the Saints to move Jaycee Spence back to her natural position on the outside, and it paid dividends during the regular season. 

“I knew we were going to be successful; I didn’t know we were going to be this successful,” Gros said. “Once we started playing and started gelling, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is our chance.’” 

Wiesbaden also made last year’s final, but coach Maria Taiafi-Husseini entered 2022 with an almost entirely new squad. 

The Warriors turned to several JV players from last season, and they added several transfers from DODEA schools in Asia. The coach expected the team would need time to gel. 

That expectation proved unfounded. Wiesbaden cruised through the regular season unbeaten until the last weekend, with a five-set loss to defending Division I champion Stuttgart in Vilseck. 

“I thought it might be a problem because we had a lot of girls come in from Japan and a player come in from Camp Humphreys in Korea, but they just mesh pretty good,” Taiafi-Husseini said. “I didn’t have to do any bonding; they kind of just gelled together.” 

After successful regular seasons, Wiesbaden, Aviano and Ansbach turn their attentions to the championships, where they know they are the teams to beat. 

For Aviano, some pressure comes from a team it knows well and another it hasn’t seen yet. In pool play, the Saints face off with Vicenza, and they have experienced some hard-fought matches so far this season. Just this past weekend, the two teams played 10 sets across two matches, with Aviano managing to pull away in the end of both. 

As for the team it doesn’t know, the Saints are wary of Black Forest Academy. The only chance to scout the Falcons will be the last pool play match against Rota on Friday, as the other two matches will be played at the same time.  

“We hear how they took a match from K-Town or took sets from this team, went 1-1 against this team, and we really haven’t seen them play,” Gros said of the Falcons. “That’s the pressure. 

“Vicenza, on any given day, anything can happen versus them.” 

Division I isn’t split into two pools, so the Warriors have three matches to play on both Thursday and Friday to qualify for Saturday’s final. 

Taiafi-Husseini isn’t concerned by the number of matches, however. The Warriors have experienced numerous five-set thrillers during the regular season – winning 3-2 over No. 2 seed Kaiserslautern on Oct. 1 and splitting a pair against Stuttgart on Oct. 8 and Oct. 22, for example. 

Matches at the European championships are best of three sets until the finals. 

“We have really worked on endurance,” Taiafi-Husseini said. “I have told them going into Europeans, it’s a whole other beast. … During the season, we have gone to five sets, and they have endured. So, I believe they are prepared for it.” 

As for Ansbach, the Cougars enter with a target on their backs, thanks to their only loss coming against an opponent above their division. 

The Cougars will try to use their height at the net with a pair 6-footers and their serving to control matches in the Division III competition. 

“Everybody’s going to gun for us,” Keller-Mitchell said. “They have nothing to lose to knock off the top seed. Yes, we are feeling some pressure. We’re just going to take each game as it comes and play our game of volleyball.” 

All three top seeds don’t see this weekend as a championship-or-bust scenario. In fact, a title would be icing on the cake of a successful season. 

“They (the players) know anything can happen,” Gros said. “If we’re not in the championship, we’re going to play our hearts out for third place.” 

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Matt is a sports reporter for Stars and Stripes based in Kaiserslautern, Germany. A son of two career Air Force aircraft maintenance technicians, he previously worked at newspapers in northeast Ohio for 10 years and is a graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

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