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Stuttgart, Naples win to set up showdown

Naples sophomore Marissa Dye sets the ball Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 in a match against Vilseck in Vicenza, Italy.

KENT HARRIS/STARS AND STRIPES

By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 7, 2016

VICENZA, Italy – The most obvious reason the Stuttgart Panthers could repeat as Division I girls volleyball champions in Europe this season?

They score a lot of easy points.

Stuttgart’s serving prowess was on display Friday night in a rematch of last year’s championship match against the host Vicenza Cougars. The outcome wasn’t any different this time around in a 25-11, 25-18, 26-24 victory.

Good serving either scores points directly or puts the other team in a defensive mode that’s hard to recover from. And it often eliminates the long back-and-forth rallies that thrill fans but also tire teams out.

Don’t tell the Panthers they don’t want to work for their points, though.

“I don’t think other teams work as hard as we do in practice,” said senior Janey Greenberg, an All-Europe libero and team captain.

The Panthers have a challenging set of drills focusing not only on getting the ball over the net, but placing it in precise locations, Greenberg said.

Vicenza, which came into the contest at 6-0, could testify to Stuttgart’s apparent success in those drills.

The Cougars looked like the team that got off a long bus ride, falling behind quickly in the first game. Alexa Smith got the Panthers off to a 7-1 start with an array of strong serves. Stuttgart took an 18-8 lead on Meadau Cunningham’s kill and coasted to the victory. The second game wasn’t much different, though it was a bit closer. Stuttgart went up 19-9 before some strong serving by Adrianna Lovelace brought Vicenza back to 19-14. But Vicenza wouldn’t get any closer.

The third game was a different story as Vicenza had the lead almost the entire way, going up 5-1, 15-7, 18-10 and 22-17 before the Panthers rallied. Down 24-20, Stuttgart scored four straight points to tie and eventually won when Cunningham slammed home a short ball that just cleared the net .

That game had Stuttgart coach Mike Rubino the most pleased.

“I told the girls that we weren’t going to call any more timeouts,” he said. “They were going to have to dig themselves out of the hole.”

It’s also the game that had Vicenza coach John Kohut the most frustrated.

“We just gave it away,” he said.

Naples def. Vilseck 25-10, 25-16, 25-18: The second matchup of the night was a contrast in style to the first one. There was very little play at the net, with each team content to volley it back and forth until the other made a mistake.

That was a formula that worked well for the Wildcats, who are young but don’t often beat themselves.

Vilseck coach Brian Swenty runs an annual volleyball camp attended by players throughout Europe, and he said the Wildcats had almost 40 girls participate.

“When you do that, you can really build up a strong program,” he said.

Naples, 7-0 this season, built a 12-4 lead in the first game and was never threatened. Many of the points came with Vilseck mistakes on its side of the net. The second game was the closest, with Vilseck building a 15-11 lead. But with Marissa Dye serving, the Wildcats scored eight straight and five straight more after her sister Sierra started to serve. The third game was the closest, but Naples closed it out in workman-like fashion.

Last year marked the first time since the wife-husband team of Julia and Kenny Byler took over the program that the Wildcats did not reach the European championship game. With only one senior and one junior and the rest underclassmen, Naples might not seem like a sure bet to get back this year either.

“We definitely have a lot of fine-tuning to do,” Kenny Byler said.

But don’t count Swenty among the doubters.

“They have three dominant players and they just took over,” he said.

Senior Sierra Dye and sophomores Marissa Dye and Natalia Waznicki fit Swenty’s description. But Naples has plenty of other cogs.

“We just need to mesh, play better together and develop that sisterhood,” Byler said.

The Wildcats have one night and morning to somehow accomplish that, because they take on Stuttgart on Saturday as the four teams switch opponents.

Harris.kent@stripes.com

Stuttgart's Alexa Smith launches a serve against Vicenza on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. The Panthers stayed unbeaten on the season with a sweep of the Cougars and serving played a major role.
KENT HARRIS/STARS AND STRIPES

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