Lancers, Panthers face off again with title spot on the line
One of the best games of the 2018 DODEA-Europe football regular season is about to get a postseason rematch.
The Lakenheath Lancers host the defending champion Stuttgart Panthers in one of the two Division I semifinal games scheduled Saturday. The Ramstein Royals host the Kaiserslautern Raiders in the other semifinal. The winners will play Nov. 3 at Kaiserslautern for the European title.
Lakenheath won the teams’ Sept. 22 meeting 28-25, a home-field win that ultimately served as the difference in the standings between the second-place Lancers and third-place Panthers and ensured the postseason rematch would also be held in England. While the Lancers earned that victory and its spoils, Stuttgart coach Billy Ratcliff isn’t deterred by that result, saying that game “absolutely could have gone either way” and adding that the Panthers “are not going to change anything” about their approach to Saturday’s semifinal.
Lakenheath coach Gabe Feletar had a similar assessment, saying the Lancers had an “uphill battle” to eliminate the Panthers, who beat Lakenheath 41-12 in last year’s semifinal round.
“They are the defending champions for a reason,” Feletar said. “It’s our job to make sure we are prepared to handle whatever they throw at us.”
Both teams threw all they had at each other in that memorable September meeting.
The Panthers answered an early Lancer score with 12 straight points, to which the Lancers responded with a go-ahead score for a 13-12 halftime lead. The teams traded touchdowns in the second half, with Stuttgart taking a 25-21 lead with two minutes to play. Lakenheath running back Ion Duenas ran in from 4 yards out with 30 seconds to play to deliver the win for the home team, one of many dramatic moments in Lakenheath’s stirring 5-1 season.
That impressive mark, and Saturday’s home-field elimination game, represents another step forward for a steadily ascendant Lakenheath program that has qualified for four straight postseasons but is still looking for its championship game breakthrough.
“It’s great for our program to be hosting a playoff game,” Lakenheath coach Gabe Feletar said. “We have had an upbeat vibe at school and around the community this year since we have been playing well. It’s good for the players to know that their hard work is paying off and they have support.”
On paper, the other Saturday semifinal is less intriguing, pitting the top-seeded Royals against the fourth-seeded Raiders, who advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2014 despite a 2-3 divisional record and 2-4 overall record.
Ramstein, the 2017 European runner-up, has handled local rival Kaiserslautern in each of its two meetings so far this fall, bookending a 6-0 regular season with a 39-8 opening-week win and a 33-14 victory in its regular-season finale.