Stuttgart, Vilseck meet for title yet again
Stars and Stripes October 26, 2023
The Vilseck Falcons aren’t afraid to take their talents on the road, especially in the postseason.
For the third-straight season, the Falcons entered the DODEA-Europe Division I football semifinals as the lower-seeded visitors. And for the third-straight time, Vilseck got past the higher seed, this fall with a one-point victory over top-seeded Lakenheath on Oct. 21.
That result punched a ticket to Saturday’s title game at Stuttgart. Going on the road again won’t affect the Falcons’ mission of bringing home the crown.
“We know we play well on the road,” Vilseck coach Eric Mead said. “We’re not intimidated by going on the road. Kids are ready to play football whether it’s on our home field or somewhere else.”
Saturday’s matchup marks the first time the Panthers (5-2) will be hosting the game. Before, the championships were played at a neutral site such as Kaiserslautern High School, but both teams seem delighted to square off in a different setting.
Vilseck (4-3) and Stuttgart have played in the last two title games.
“We’re really excited. The community has bought in,” Panther coach Antoine Reed said. “I know Vilseck is excited as well. They’re bringing the house down to Stuttgart.”
A third consecutive meeting in the final wasn’t written in stone after the regular season, though.
The three-time defending champion Panthers, who lost a senior class of more than 20 players, began the season 1-2 before rattling off four straight wins. One of those victories included a 17-14 upset at Ramstein in the semifinal round.
The Falcons also began the season 1-2 and entered the playoffs as the fourth seed after losing their regular-season finale 26-14 at Stuttgart on Oct. 6. Vilseck bounced back and came back to beat top-seeded Lakenheath 16-15.
Reed said he isn’t shocked to see the Falcons take the tough path back to the championship game.
“They’re pretty resilient as a team,” he said. “I respect their coach – he’s a really smart guy. He’s going to be prepared when they come in here to try to beat us.”
Mead said his team, like many across Europe, struggled with injuries throughout the season, which showed in the record. The Falcons got healthy at the right time, and the deep run followed suit.
When healthy, Vilseck banks on the play of fullback/linebacker Garrett Hyten, whom Mead described as “the heart and soul” of the team; running back Gabe Mallard; linemen Simon Poveda, a two-year starter, and Miguel Cepeda, center; and Junior Gonzalez, a defensive back who knocked down four passes against Lakenheath’s high-powered aerial attack.
“When these big schools lose a kid to an injury, they can put in a junior or senior, and when we start losing kids to injuries, we’re looking at freshmen and sophomores,” Mead said. “As long as we’re healthy, we can play with them.”
In the teams’ previous meeting, the Panthers had one of their best offensive performances – something that left a mark on Mead and the Falcons.
Quarterback Ty Jones went 24-of-40 passing for 340 yards, three scores and two interceptions. His favorite target was Jace Holmes, who caught eight balls for 132 yards and a touchdown, while Aidan Heumphreus and Seth Long each totaled 89 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, Kai Lewis, TyShawn Rusu and Johnathan Vernetti picked off passes, and Dan Greer added a sack.
Hyten proved to be force for the Falcons on defense that day with nine tackles and two pass breakups from his linebacker position. Vilseck also got a pair of sacks from Damon Saxton and Arthur Tavaraes.
“Our secondary is greatly improved, and we’ve gotten a few really good defensive linemen back,” Mead said. “So, we’re hoping we can counter that air threat they have.
“They had a hard time running the ball against us last game, and we’re hoping that we can continue that pressure on their run game.”
As important as Hyten is for the Falcons, Mead said the same could be said of Jack Gruver for the Panthers.
The Vilseck coach mentioned he has known Gruver since he was 2 years old and is a family friend whom he joked he has tried to recruit since he was 5. Said friend made 22 tackles and punched in a 1-yard score in Stuttgart’s win over the Falcons.
“We have to know where Jack Gruver is at all times on that field,” Mead said. “We got to put a man on him when we’re running the ball, and we got to get on him when he’s running the ball.”
Stuttgart, meanwhile, is nursing a few injuries heading into the game as it tries to add a fourth-straight trophy for the cabinet.
The Panthers still are evolving and putting additions into the playbook, as shown with its wildcat formation. Reed didn’t want to reveal any of his cards ahead of the game, but he and his players hope it leads to another title.
“We threw the wildcat in there against Ramstein as a failsafe,” Reed said. “We may have a couple wrinkles in there. We’re going to see.”