Finalists are pretty much teams that have been there before
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2019
Note: This article has been corrected.
A fiercely competitive Friday of volleyball in the Kaiserslautern Military Community produced six finalists for Saturday’s 2019 DODEA-Europe girls volleyball championship matches.
The Stuttgart Panthers will defend their Division I crown against the Ramstein Royals in an anticipated rematch of last year’s straight-set Stuttgart victory.
The Vicenza Cougars and Naples Wildcats will celebrate their recent return to Division II by playing in its championship match.
The Sigonella Jaguars, at once the dynastic defending champions and hungry underdogs, will take on the top-seeded Spangdahlem Sentinels in the Division III final.
Stuttgart def. Wiesbaden 21-25, 25-21, 16-25, 25-14, 15-7: The top-seeded Panthers were pushed to the brink of elimination in a spirited upset bid by the third-seeded Warriors.
Stuttgart trailed for much of the match, falling a set behind twice before finally seizing control over the course of a dominant fourth set and a finishing flourish in the fifth set.
“We wanted it,” senior hitter Karen Kosinski said. “We really, really wanted it, and it showed.”
Kosinski said the early struggles were largely a consequence of shaky serving on Stuttgart’s part. The Panthers tightened up that issue in the later sets, she said, and the scoreboard reflected the difference.
That gave Kosinski the opportunity to close the deal in a decisive fifth set. Her teammates consistently sent the ball her way, and Kosinski delivered with a barrage of nasty kills to end the Warriors’ nascent title hopes.
“Bring the team up when we’re a little bit down,” Kosinski said. “That’s something I try to work on as a senior.”
Ramstein def. Vilseck 25-21, 25-20, 25-20: While the Panthers were scrapping on one side of Ramstein’s Southside Fitness Center, the hometown Royals were cruising on the other.
Ramstein was methodical in its takedown of the fifth-seeded Falcons, aiming its serves at particular opposing players it wanted to field them and largely avoiding potential momentum-shifting mistakes. The precise performance came after an extra session of hitting practice earlier in the day.
Senior setter Isabella Coddington, who dished out 25 assists against the Falcons, said she wanted the team’s hitting “to be on” when the semifinal went live in the afternoon.
The impressive effort in the semifinal is the latest step in what Coddington characterized as a season-long improvement in the team’s play this season, a steady rise the Royals hope reaches its zenith Saturday. Ramstein is still stinging from its loss to Stuttgart in last year’s championship match and is looking forward to the rematch.
“Last season hurt, for sure,” Coddington said. “I’d say we’re more mentally tough this year, and we’re ready.”
Vicenza and Naples emerged from a rigorous seven-team, two-day slate of round-robin play to earn their spots in Saturday’s final. The championship match will be a rematch of one of the tournament’s closest preliminary matches, a 25-27, 25-22, 15-10 Vicenza victory on Thursday.
That Naples loss to the Cougars was the only loss either team suffered in this tournament, setting up the latest showdown in a rivalry that has traversed two divisions in recent years.
The landscape of Division II shifted dramatically over the summer as Naples and Vicenza returned to the fold in a major DODEA-Europe divisional realignment. The two schools, both former powerhouses in Division II, had spent the previous five seasons at the Division I level. That same realignment sent Black Forest Academy, itself a perennial presence in the Division II title scene and last year’s runner-up to Marymount, up to Division I, and Division II mainstay AFNORTH down to Division III.
Spangdahlem def. Brussels 25-22, 22-25, 25-19, 21-25, 16-14: The Sentinels barely escaped an epic semifinal with the rival Brigands.
Brussels owned the momentum for much of the latter stages of the match, winning the fourth set in convincing fashion and holding leads of 8-2 and 13-10 in the fifth and final set. But top-seeded Spangdahlem persevered behind the steady hand of senior Jennifer Oppliger, who delivered a string of high-pressure service points to stave off what seemed an imminent defeat.
“Just trying to pretend that it’s a normal serve,” Oppliger said while admitting that she was “very, very nervous” serving with her team’s season on the line. “I just had to stay calm and don’t stress too much. If I stress too much, then it’s going to go out.”
The Sentinels as a whole adopted a similar mindset in the wake of a disastrous start to the final set. Oppliger said Spangdahlem has made a habit of slow starts and roaring comebacks and had faith that they had at least one more left.
“I feel like we knew we could build our way back up and win,” Oppliger said.
Friday’s elimination-round rematch was a worthy sequel to one of the most competitive matches of the regular season, a 25-11, 26-24, 15-25, 19-25, 15-11 Sentinel defeat of the Brigands on Oct. 12.
Sigonella def. Hohenfels 25-22, 25-27, 25-11, 25-22: The Jaguars are the four-time defending European champions and the fourth seed in this year’s tournament. They’ve played a lot more like the former than the latter.
Sigonella roared back into the championship match with its fourth victory in as many postseason matches Friday with a four-set defeat of the second-seeded Tigers.
The geographically distant Jaguars were assigned a humble middle-of-the-pack seed based on their limited body of work compared to the teams seeded above them. But they spent this tournament reinforcing the championship status quo, starting with a Thursday-morning 25-18, 25-21, 10-15 win over top-seeded Spangdahlem, their eventual finals opponent.
Ramstein's Giselle Stake hits the ball against Vilseck defenders Rebekah Heckert and Reyne Drasny in a Division I semifinal at the DODEA-Europe volleyball finals in Ramstein, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Ramstein won 25-21, 25-20, 25-20 and will face Stuttgart in Saturday's final.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES