Aviano wins first football title in two decades
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Aviano Saints won the 2018 DODEA-Europe Division II football championship Saturday at Kaiserslautern High School, crushing the rival Naples Wildcats 42-18 for their first European football crown in two decades.
“I can’t say any more about this team,” Saints coach Richard Dahlstrom said. “It’s been fantastic. To bring the banner back to Aviano after all this time feels really good.”
Naples handed Aviano its only loss of the season, a 41-36 decision on Oct. 20 that came after the Saints had already clinched their spot in the championship game.
Dahlstrom said the Saints learned a lot from that game, and those lessons were effectively implemented Saturday.
“That game, they came out and they were physical and they took it to us,” Dahlstrom said. “This game, the opposite happened.”
It didn’t happen immediately for Aviano as it traded first-quarter scores with the Wildcats and inched ahead by eight at the intermission. The Saints asserted themselves in the third quarter to quickly grow a narrow 14-6 halftime lead to blowout proportions.
Donavin Robinson caught a touchdown pass and ran for another in the half’s first five minutes to put Aviano up 28-6.
At halftime, the Saints discussed how they could blow the game open if they’d get out of their own way.
“We talked about how we were making so many mistakes, and if we had gotten rid of those mistakes, we’d be leading by more,” Dahlstrom said.
Naples shaved its deficit early in the fourth quarter, but Robinson had the answer again, breaking free for another long touchdown run and putting the Saints up 35-12 just moments after the Wildcats attempted to jump-start a comeback. A Khiry Thomas interception with about five minutes left to play dashed what hope remained for the Wildcats.
“They came to play, they executed well,” Naples coach Jim Davis said. “And we didn’t, unfortunately.”
Saturday’s win completed a stunning three-season turnaround for the Saints, who reached the semifinals last year after a winless 2016 campaign. The championship comes 20 years after the program’s 1998 Division II title.
The junior Robinson, selected as Saturday’s offensive player of the game, has endured his share of disappointments, from the discouraging 2016 season to last year’s heartbreaking semifinal loss to Rota to the recent loss to Naples that denied the Saints an undefeated season. Now the talented playmaker is enjoying the other extreme of the high school sports experience.
“This is all I wanted. I wanted to do it for my seniors,” Robinson said. “We had the talent in the end, and we had the heart.”
Saturday’s final brought an end to an unusual Division II season. Baumholder’s late-summer drop from Division II to III disrupted the regular-season, notably cancelling Aviano's scheduled home opener against International School of Brussels. Meanwhile, the division’s seven remaining teams were left to scrap for just two postseason berths in the absence of the conventional set of semifinals. More change is possible next fall if more Division II teams opt into the six-man Division III league introduced by DODEA-Europe this year.