Volleyball marathon begins: 49 matches down, 51 to go
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The first day of the DODDS-Europe’s Division I volleyball championships ended as it started Thursday: an upset that demonstrated the title is anybody’s to win.
Vilseck came out blazing in the first match of the tournament, stunning fourth seed Kaiserslautern 25-16, 25-23.
The second match pitted third seed Lakenheath against the team that was the only one to beat it all season: Ramstein. The Lancers fell short of redemption, though, falling to the Royals 25-15, 25-18.
"It pretty much worked how we hoped it would," Ramstein coach Erin Markus said. "We didn’t want to let them into the match, because Lakenheath’s a good team. And as soon as we let them into the match, the mentality of volleyball can happen and it could go the other direction."
The Royals had a game plan that called for targeting the Lancers' big hitters "and that’s what they did," Markus said.
Lancers’ senior senior Bailee Hughes was on the receiving end of the Royals’ stifling shot blocking, but she said she was feeling confident after the loss.
“I think our nerves are out. Our team was nervous coming in. You know, it’s a big tournament. We had a great season with only one loss, to Ramstein. We wanted to come back to redeem ourselves. So the nerves built up and it created unnecessary pressure.”
Hughes’ confidence was warranted. Her Lancers later stunned top seed Patch 25-19, 25-15 in a match that was the highlight of Day 1.
But before that happened, top-seeded Patch dropped Wiesbaden 25-15, 25-13, allowing the Warriors just four points on serve in the second set.
Wiesbaden’s second matchup was against a Vilseck squad that had already tasted victory and was looking solid, even as it dropped the first set to the Warriors 25-18. In the second set, though, Wiesbaden looked as if it would lope to victory as the Warriors opened an 18-11 gap.
Then the wheels came off of Wiesbaden’s defense, and Vilseck closed the gap to tie at 23. It was one of the most impressive rallies of the day, but not enough to win it as Wiesbaden came back to win the second set 25-23.
“I think they got a little ahead of themselves in the second set. We had a really good lead and we stopped, I guess,” Warriors coach Linnea Velsvaag said of her team after the match.
“I don’t think you’ll see that again. I think they realize that the game’s not over until the ref blows the whistle at the end.”
Wiesbaden’s first matchup Friday will come against Lakenheath, which provided one of the day’s most dominating performances in the second set against Patch, going for two five-point runs that left the Panthers floundering.
“The kills were all amazing,” Lancers coach Kyle Siftar said. “They were all down and in, and we were able to just play some great defensive blocks. I think this is probably the best game we’ve played all year.”
“We have a well-set team, it’s just, it takes a lot for us to come together and work as a team,” Hughes said.
Under pressure to redeem themselves of their regular season loss to Ramstein, “we just fell apart.”
With the top two seeds behind them - a close loss and a handy win - Siftar said he was “cautiously optimistic” going into the tournament’s second day, where they’ll face off against lower-seeded teams. The teams with the top two records after Friday’s play meet in Saturday’s finals.
But “win, lose, we just came here to have fun,” Siftar said.
Favorites shine in Division IIWhile the six Division I schools began to settle their season-long scores, the 15 teams piled into two Division II pools spent Thursday morning finding their bearings in a sprawling field featuring teams from Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, and Bahrain.
Alconbury made the 16-hour bus ride from the U.K. to join the Division II scrum after years at the Division III level. Senior hitter Emily Luong said the team is thrilled to face the new competition.
"It's definitely exciting. Kind of nerve-wracking because, you know, it's a totally different group of people," said Luong, now in her fourth and final season as a Dragon varsity player. "But it's fun. Something new, so I like it."
Luong's Dragons played to mixed results in Thursday's pool play. They beat Bitburg and SHAPE, but fell to defending champion Naples and pool top seed Rota, the three-time Division III champ that joined Alconbury in moving up to the higher level.
The expansive roster of fresh opponents provides an annual test even for returning Division II teams like Vicenza. After being restricted to Italian opponents throughout the regular season, the Cougars faced German programs Baumholder and Black Forest Academy to open their four-match Thursday schedule.
"It's a really interesting transition because we don't know how they play," senior Tia Juliano said. "We have to see how adaptable we can be."
Like Luong, Juliano has played DODDS-Europe volleyball since her freshman year. While staying focused on pushing her team through its bracket, Juliano is also relishing her final experience with what she called "the best time of year."
"I've got to leave it all here," Juliano said. "I'm not thinking about the end, I'm just playing it all out."
AFNORTH, the field's lone entry from Netherlands, pulled off perhaps the division's biggest upset Thursday with a win over second-seeded Ansbach. But Juliano's Cougars stalled the Lions' momentum with a convincing sweep.
Aside from Ansbach's surprise setback, the division's top seeds skated through their matches. American Overseas School of Rome was dominant in sweeps of Marymount, Black Forest Academy and Vicenza, spoiling the Cougars' bid for a 4-0 first day. Naples and Rota each won all eight of their Thursday sets, nicely setting up a Friday morning showdown between last year's Division II and Division III champions.
Each pool's top two teams at the end of Friday's pool play will face off in a pair of concurrent Friday evening semifinals. The championship match is set for Saturday morning.
Games sometimes easy part for D-III schoolsLike their Division II counterparts, DODDS-Europe's smallest schools welcomed the new faces looking back at them through the nets.
Turkey-based Incirlik beat England's Menwith Hill and Germany's Bamberg and added a win over familiar rival Ankara before second-seeded Italian program Sigonella broke the streak.
The annual convergence of DODDS-Europe's distant member schools makes for a hectic three-day schedule. But the four best-of-three matches Incirlik played Thursday were nothing compared to the journey required to get to Ramstein.
The Hodjas left on a bus from Incirlik about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, took a plane out of nearby Adana to Istanbul and rode another jet from there to Frankfurt, where a bus took them to their accommodation on the floor of the Ramstein High School gym. The team awoke early Thursday for its 8:30 a.m. opening match.
As grueling as it was, that agenda was far better than the other option: not going at all. "We were scared we weren't going to be able to come because of the government shutdown," said Allyn Anderson, the only senior on a roster that includes four freshmen and three sophomores. "But we're good now."
Incirlik's 3-1 effort Thursday makes it a contender as play begins to mathematically eliminate teams Friday.
Top-seeded Brussels won each of its four first-day matches in convincing straight-set fashion. Sigonella matched the Brigands with a perfect 4-0 start.
The Hodjas and Sigonella both get their first shots at Brussels early Friday. The field's top two teams will advance to Saturday's title match.