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Stuttgart, Vicenza win thrillers in finals-like atmosphere

By KENT HARRIS | $content.organization.value.toUpperCase() Published: September 22, 2017

VICENZA, Italy – It’s still more than a month before the DODEA European volleyball championships start.

Someone apparently forgot to tell the Vilseck Falcons, Vicenza Cougars, Stuttgart Panthers and Naples Wildcats that Friday night.

“Amazing games,” Naples coach Cristina Hall said. “It felt like Europeans.”

And her team was one of the losers.

The Wildcats gave two-time defending champion Stuttgart all it wanted, though. The Panthers eventually prevailed 25-21, 15-25, 25-22, 25-23, staying perfect on the season - which is only three weeks old.

That game between two teams expected to be championship contenders followed an even more competitive matchup between two teams that aren’t. But Vicenza – a 26-24, 15-25, 25-20, 21-25, 15-11 victor – and Vilseck each had plenty of highlights.

Naples and Vicenza are the only two Division I schools south of the Alps and this weekend is the only time they’ll get to play any of the schools they’ll play in the championships until the championships.

“Sometimes, it’s a disadvantage, because we only get to play them once all season,” Hall said.

And that almost didn’t happen. The bus Stuttgart planned to take down broke down, so parents had to shuttle players over the Alps. If those parents hadn’t showed up, though, the gym would have been even more overwhelmingly pro-Naples – thanks to the Wildcats’ football team, in town to play Vicenza on Saturday.

Stuttgart coach Mike Rubino didn’t seem to mind that his team wasn’t exactly playing in a neutral arena.

“Good, hard competition,” he said of the Wildcats. “They are a fantastic team. This is really one of the highlights of our year when we come down here to play them to see what they have and see where we are.”

The Panthers appeared to be in fairly fine form. They were up two games to one entering the fourth one and forged ahead 22-17. But Naples scored four straight points behind the serving of Marissa Dye before Stuttgart’s Meadau Cunningham ended the streak with a kill. The game ended pretty much the way the first and third games did, with Stuttgart scoring key points at the end.

The second game was the exception, thanks in part to the play of Naples’ returning All-Europe player Natalia Woznicka, who starred both at the net and behind the service line. Her team took an 11-2 advantage while she was serving. Stuttgart pulled to 16-14 and she stopped that surge with a kill. Then she took over serving again with her team ahead 19-15 and eventually closed out the game with two aces.

Serving proved decisive in the first matchup as well, with three of the five games ending with the losing side serving into the net or out of the court. Neither side led by more than three points in the first game, which ended with a kill by Julia Lombardi.

The Falcons took early leads in both the second, third and fourth games, but held on only in two of them, forging ahead 18-10 before trading points to win in the second and leading 7-1 in the fourth before holding off a Vicenza charge.

Vicenza’s Chenda Gragg had a couple of kills to give her team the advantage midway through the final game and the Cougars managed to hold on as the two teams then essentially traded points.

Vicenza takes on Stuttgart and Naples battles Vilseck on Saturday.

Harris.kent@stripes.com

Vicenza's Jessica Sweatman sends the ball towards the net Friday in the Wildcats' 26-24, 15-15, 25-20, 21-25, 15-11 victory over Vilseck.
KENT HARRIS/STARS AND STRIPES

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