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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Naples ensured it will have a chance to defend its Division II DODDS Europe volleyball title with a decisive semifinals win Friday over Vicenza, but the road to the championship won’t be an easy ride.

In Saturday's finals, the Wildcats face the team that handed them their only losses this year: American Overseas School of Rome.

AOSR earned a trip to the finals with a hard-fought win over former Division III powerhouse, Rota, which was bumped up to Division II this year.

In the much anticipated matchup – the first between the two teams - the Falcons prevailed against Rota, 26-24, 20-25, 25-13, 25-19, setting up Saturday’s all-Italy final against Naples. The best-of-five match is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. at the Ramstein Southside Fitness Center.

“Man, we are so excited,” Naples coach Julia Byler said about playing in the finals. “We’d love to redeem those two losses” against AOSR, she said.

Naples will be hard to contain. The Wildcats have been on fire, tearing through two days of tourney play so far without a set loss. In Friday’s pool play, they beat Rota, Aviano and Bitburg, before discarding a scrappy Vicenza team in the semifinals, 25-15, 25-21, 25-10.

“They’re a great team,” first-year Vicenza coach John Kohut said of Naples. “With that type of team, you can’t give the ball easy to them.”

Vicenza clinched a spot in the semifinals after a three-set nail-biter against Ansbach earlier Friday. After falling behind 20-25 in the first set, the Cougars roared back to take the final two sets, 25-19 and 15-12. In that match, “we tried to keep the ball away from their best players and we prevailed,” Kohut said.

Against Naples, the Cougars couldn’t capitalize on that strategy. The Wildcats’ star and last year’s Division II tournament MVP, senior outside hitter and defender Victoria Krause, was everywhere, registering 17 kills and seven aces, while sophomore middle hitter Leina Esperon added four kills. Byler commended senior libero Carina Cusumano’s play on defense. “She was all over the place in the back row, digging up everything.”

After their match ended, Naples and Vicenza players and coaches eagerly watched the intense action on the neighboring court between AOSR and Rota.

In the first set, Rota attacked early and seemed to keep AOSR’s defense off balance, building a 10-7 lead. AOSR briefly regained the advantage before Rota began to pull away, up 20-16 on a kill from senior outside hitter Aspen Luna.

But the Admirals couldn’t put it away: AOSR returned a hard hit from Luna to even the score at 20-20 and went on to win 26-24. But the close loss in the first was far from being a confidence crusher, said head coach Melinda Luna.

“They started believing in themselves,” she said.

Sure enough, Rota came back to take the second set, 25-20, with Aspen Luna carrying her team with a pair of back-to-back aces and seven kills, including a monster one that tied the score at 16 all.

“We’re the only team that’s taken a set against AOSR, so that’s pretty exciting,” Melinda Luna said.

But AOSR at times was able to counter Luna and served up their own mix of kills, blocks and aces – too many for the Admirals to overcome.

Leading the Falcons on offense was sophomore outside hitter Margo Snipe with eight kills and senior middle blocker Domiziana Mazzoni, with seven. Senior Sofia Mauceri had 21 assists.

AOSR coach Abby Bielski said her team prevailed by not losing focus. “We were able to really pull together when we were down five, six, seven points,” she said. “That was the difference, not giving up.”

The matchup with Rota was all the Falcons anticipated. “We’ve been waiting for this,” Bielski said. “We’ve been hearing about Rota. They’re a great team. All of our players really stepped up.”

Snipe summed up the match in two words: “Intense, Intense.”

“It was awesome and intense and exciting and scary,” she said. “It’s one of the most intense games we’ve played. We had heart and we left it all out on the court.”

Though they won’t play for a championship Saturday – for the first time in three years – Aspen Luna said the Admirals are holding their heads high.

“We really stepped it up. We had a lot of positive energy,” she said. “It was a good way to end today.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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