Ansbach's Eliana Vales fires during the DODEA-Europe Marksmanship championship at Vogelweh, Germany, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018.

Ansbach's Eliana Vales fires during the DODEA-Europe Marksmanship championship at Vogelweh, Germany, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. (Michael B. Keller/Stars and Stripes)

Marksmanship teams across DODEA-Europe have a little more motivation to keep their aims true this winter.

After years of outright dominance, the five-time defending champion Stuttgart Panthers have finally returned to the pack this season with a team comprised entirely of first-year shooters. While Stuttgart shouldn’t be counted out - the Panthers did win Saturday’s season-opening Eastern conference meet - this season is undoubtedly one of increased opportunity for the field of championship hopefuls eager to supplant the reigning dynasty.

“We are indeed excited about having an increased chance to compete with Stuttgart for the title this year,” said Kaiserslautern coach Robert Meyer, who has ramped up his team’s practice regimen from three times a week to every school day this winter. “We have the strongest varsity team that we have ever had, and they are very motivated to compete.”

Those results showed up immediately Saturday as the Raiders posted 1,109 points, the opening weekend’s top total score in either conference. Kaiserslautern returns seniors Jazmyn Taylor and MacKenzie Cuellar and junior Julianna Hosey, and received a significant boost this season from the arrival of Stuttgart varsity transfer Isabelle Ploechinger.

Coach Ashton Allen of Wiesbaden, Kaiserslautern’s top Western conference rival, called the rising Raiders a “powerhouse.” But the Warriors, despite losing four varsity shooters from its 2017-18 European runner-up squad, also harbor their own legitimate championship aspirations after finishing just 45 points off the Raiders’ pace on Saturday. Wiesbaden’s Tristan Lauer produced the weekend’s top individual score with 283 combined points.

“Wiesbaden is also in a rebuilding year, but we are matching our scores from last year,” Allen said. “This is not a flash-in-the-pan situation.”

That’s the hope for all of the Panthers’ rivals. A key to Stuttgart’s sustained success has been its consistent ability to develop waves of young shooters ready to step into varsity roles when such vacancies emerge, a model the other top teams in DODEA-Europe are working to replicate, including those within Stuttgart’s own Eastern conference.

The Vilseck Falcons are led by proven performers and co-captains Zoe Kinzie, a junior, and Angelisa Dobbins-Taylor, a senior. The Ansbach Cougars have a seasoned group featuring juniors Jasmine Rivera and Anjelina Lopez-Turry and sophomores Eliana Vales and Jacqueline Muszcznski.

That accumulation of experience and talent made for a thrilling first-week meet in the Eastern conference; Stuttgart posted 1,090 points, single digits ahead of runner-up Vilseck’s 1,081 points. Vales scored a meet-best 280 combined points to lead Ansbach’s strong third-place showing at 1,078.

Besides the increased parity, the DODEA-Europe schedule itself presents its own set of challenges. This weekend’s two meets are the last before the holiday break, over which teams will find limited opportunities to practice. The season resumes Jan. 12, with the European championship meet arriving just weeks later on Feb. 2.

“Most of the shooters can get back into the swing fairly quickly,” Alconbury coach John Pardo said.

This year in particular, they certainly won’t be lacking for motivation.

Twitter: @broomestripes

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