RAF ALCONBURY, England – When the ball dropped through the net just before the buzzer sounded Friday, Jacob Saunders’ mind “went a little bit blank,” he said. Sinking the go-ahead basket with the clock about to expire is the stuff basketball dreams are made of, especially if the opposing team happens to be Rota, which up until Friday, had beaten Brussels every time they played for at least the last four years. “It was a milestone,” said Brussels’ senior Kristian Javier, who was knocked to the floor with about 5 seconds remaining and watched nervously as his shot bounced off the hoop – and, then to his relief, into the hands of a rebounding Saunders. While the pivotal moment may have seemed surreal to Saunders, the defeat was unfamiliar territory to a Rota team that had won 35 straight games entering Friday’s play, according to Admirals coach Ben Anderson. The loss to Brussels was Rota’s second of the Division III winter basketball tournament, a whirlwind of 16 boys’ and girls’ games played over three days at the high school gym, thanks in part to shortened, six-minute periods. In the first game Friday, Rota lost in an overtime thriller to Menwith Hill, 54-49. The tourney is especially important for Rota, as it usually marks the only time in the regular season the far-flung Admirals get to play other DODDS-Europe competition. The team can play local Spanish squads, but the players are usually older, from about 18 to 22 years of age, Anderson said. When Rota had Tre’von Owens, who’s now playing Division I college ball, “it was fine,” said Anderson, who lost five starting seniors to graduation last year. The DODDS-Europe games are a “good gauge,” he said. “We’re doing OK. I think we’re going to be competitive in our division.” Rota’s players say the team dynamics are different without Owens – a two-time Stars and Stripes player of the year. They’re forced to work harder as a team for every point, since they can’t count on him to light up the boards. And that’s not such a bad thing, the players say, since they all feel like they can contribute. “There’s not a drop in our team – it’s a straight line,” said sophomore Christian Ewing. “You could play anyone on the bench. Tre’von, he was a star, but we have 10 stars this year.” Despite the loss of Owens, Rota entered the tournament as the team to beat. “It doesn’t matter who Ben has on his team – they’re so well-coached, you know you’re going to have to play well” to beat them, Brussels coach Chris Vahrenhorst said. “They always reload every year,” said Menwith Hill senior Schuyler Backlar, who racked up nearly half the Mustangs’ point total in the team’s win against Rota on Friday. Like Saunders, it’s a victory Backlar won’t soon forget. “It’s the first time I beat Rota in my whole high school career,” he said. With the score deadlocked, Backlar implored his teammates not to give the game away. “I was telling everyone on my team to give everything they’ve got,” he said.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now