Picking favorites isn’t always that easy
Stars and Stripes October 25, 2023
Coaches often say anything can happen during a tournament.
But while upsets do happen, top seeds generally find themselves making deep runs.
Trying to decipher the favorites in the DODEA European Division II volleyball championship, held Thursday through Saturday in the Kaiserslautern Military Community, however, is murky at best. In fact, it feels like anything could happen.
The top three seeds – Aviano, Naples and Vicenza – enter the tournament with two divisional losses and double-digit overall victories. The top-seeded Saints (12-2, 11-2) went 2-1 against the second-seeded Wildcats (11-2, 9-2) during the regular season, with Aviano’s wins coming on the opening weekend and Naples getting the better of the Saints on Oct. 7.
The Cougars (10-3, 4-2), meanwhile, dropped their contests against Aviano and Naples, but they also avoided slip-ups against similar foes and took the Division III favorite Ansbach to five sets.
“I will never discount Vicenza and/or Naples,” Aviano coach Michael Gros said. “It’s like a whole new ballgame. So, I look at it like everybody’s record is 0-0, and we can’t afford any hiccups.”
The other five seeds can provide plenty of hiccups for others.
Fifth-seeded Bahrain (2-5, 1-2) went five sets with fourth-seeded Black Forest Academy (2-9, 1-4), which pushed Aviano to five sets in one match and Naples and Vicenza to four. Last year’s runner-up, American Overseas School of Rome (4-5, 3-5) sits as the sixth seed.
Oh, and Rota? The seventh seed pulled off an upset of the Saints less than two weeks ago for its first win of the season, and the Admirals (2-7, 2-7) also went five sets against the Cougars on Sept. 16 and the Wildcats on Sept. 29.
“I think that’s when things get kind of messy, when you underestimate a team,” Naples coach Biannca Recoder said. “So, I’ve been trying to keep them down to earth.
“I’ve been trying to keep them level-headed. They’re confident, but they still understand anything can happen and they need to work just as hard as they’ve been working all season.”
Vicenza coach John Kohut pointed out how the work throughout the season has prepared the Cougars for the European championships. He mentioned how he and his players have devised plans on playing all their opponents, but it will come down to execution and how the other teams react.
“It all depends on who’s healthy and who is coming to play volleyball,” Kohut said. “It depends on who shows up in the morning to play, who remembers their duties on the court, what to do with certain players.”
The hottest team heading into the tournament is Naples, which hasn’t lost since Sept. 9.
Recoder said her team bounced back from the opening weekend losses to Aviano by having more self-belief, especially on offense. The Wildcats switched to a 6-2 formation, which has six hitters and two setters in the six-player rotation.
Sophomores Gracie Grannis and Emma Heavey stepped into the setter roles, with Grannis also playing as the right-side hitter. Junior Mackinzi Dudley also has found her groove hitting.
“I remember at the end of (the loss), coach Gros – we’re good friends – he told me I think we swung maybe 12 times the entire five sets, and they were just swinging on us,” Recoder said. “What we worked on really was to gain that confidence and work on that, and I think that’s really what has changed.”
The Saints have faltered a few times in the last couple of weeks, but the defending champions still have the top seed.
Aviano lost key pieces from last year’s team but brought back setter Mayci Salmon and outside hitters Jaycee Spence and Stella Beckwith-Wolf. Added in are transfer Addison Krajicek at middle blocker and sophomore Abigail Desporte, who was cut her freshman year but played for an Italian club team and came back a different player, at libero.
With this combination of players, along with others, Gros is high on the possibility to repeat.
“I think if we can just continue to play our best, then we have a good chance,” Gros said. “But if we come out flat, just like with anything, you’re not going to do it.”
Ansbach lost five seniors from its 2022 title-winning squad. Sophomore Kennedy Lange, named to the All-Tournament team a year ago, is back.
To keep up the standard of play, though, coach Deb Keller-Mitchell came up with an idea. She gave each player a carabiner with their initials, while also having one for herself.
Then, she set to motivate the Cougars.
“I started it and said, ‘I will not be the weakest link,’ ” Keller-Mitchell said. “Then I handed it to the next person. She was like, ‘Well, coach, I don’t want to be the weakest link.’ Then she handed it to the next person, and she said, ‘I don’t want to be the weakest link.’ This went all the way around my team.
“We work really hard on having a cup of confidence and a teaspoon of cockiness.”
That method worked during the regular season and has Ansbach entering the Division III European tournament as the top seed. The Cougars (9-0 overall, 8-0 in D-III) have defeated everybody in their division except third-seeded Sigonella (6-6, 2-1).
Keller-Mitchell said Ansbach anticipates having a bull’s-eye on its back at Kaiserslautern and Ramstein high schools, and finding a way to win during tough moments will prove vital.
“Everybody is going to bring their best toward us,” she said. “We talk about gritty, not pretty. Sometimes, we just have to have grit, bear it and just go for it.”
No. 2 seed AFNORTH (12-2, 9-2) has lost only to Ansbach and the Jaguars and was perfect against limited D-I and D-II competition. Sigonella played a limited D-III schedule, with almost all of its matches against D-II schools in Italy.
It’s not often a DODEA-Europe team switches coaches in the middle of the season, and yet the Wiesbaden volleyball team has experienced just that this campaign.
And the Warriors haven’t missed a beat. Instead, since Jon Ring stepped into the role, the Warriors (14-1, 10-1) haven’t lost and stormed into the top seed of the Division I tournament.
Ring said the success has been up to the players, including the six seniors.
“We have a couple of sort of specialists,” Ring said, “but we’ve got a bunch of all-around players that if they need to play in another position different than they maybe have been, it’s pretty seamless for them to float right into that.”
The Division I tournament differs from the other two in that it isn’t split into two pools. That means all seven teams face off in a round-robin format before the semifinal round.
Ring said he’s trying to get the Warriors to focus on each match individually and not on the big picture in hopes it ends with another title.
“You don’t have to split the whole pile of wood at once; you just got to chop the wood in front of you,” Ring said. “So, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Second-seeded Ramstein (10-3, 7-3) split with the Warriors this season, handing them their only defeat. The Royals also lost twice to No. 3 seed Kaiserslautern (10-4, 6-4). Lakenheath (6-3, 5-3) is seeded fourth and is the only other team with a winning record in the division.