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Parity time!

And no, that’s not a typographical error.

Seven Division II soccer teams, including four boys and three girls squads, will enter this key weekend of the DODDS-Europe spring schedule with an undefeated record against divisional opponents. Nine Division II soccer teams have winning overall records, despite many playing much larger Division I schools. Even those schools with less accomplished regular season résumés can’t be overlooked entirely.

“I don’t think there are any weak teams this year,” Hohenfels boys coach Shawn Rodman said.

In short, the state of Division II soccer is strong, despite some of its most accomplished programs being sheared away by last fall’s divisional realignment. With just two weekends of action to go before the 2015 DODDS-Europe tournaments, the midsized schools are poised to slot into a pair of deep and dangerous championship brackets.

The AFNORTH Lions, Black Forest Academy Falcons and Hohenfels Tigers are unbeaten in six combined Division II girls matches entering the weekend. All were victorious last weekend, as the Lions beat Rota and Bitburg, the Falcons blanked Baumholder and the Tigers handled American Overseas School of Rome and Aviano.

If there is a frontrunner among that group, it’s AFNORTH. The 2014 runners-up are the only one of last year’s Division II semifinalists to return to the division after seeing reigning dynasty Naples and perennial contenders Vicenza and SHAPE moved up to Division I and a tough Alconbury program reassigned to Division III. The Lions are undefeated overall so far this season, having yielded just two goals in four games.

AFNORTH is a leading contender among the boys, too, after staying unbeaten last weekend with wins over divisional rivals Rota and Bitburg. Hohenfels is right there with them with a 3-0 divisional record and an active five-game winning streak. BFA is 3-1 on the year, including a win over Division I opponent Wiesbaden.

And that’s not even counting Division II juggernaut Marymount, which is chasing its fifth straight European title this spring. The Royals faltered in a 1-0 loss to Division III Florence on April 18 but have been otherwise excellent, beating Italian foes Naples, Sigonella and Aviano by a combined score of 15-1.

Division II has long been the fitful middle child of DODDS-Europe sports, lacking the resources of the larger Division I programs or the clear underdog status of the tiny Division III teams. Until last year’s realignment, the division’s ranks had swollen to over a dozen teams, making a deep playoff run difficult. In soccer, the fact of the Naples girls and Marymount boys dominating the last half-decade of divisional championships made that goal even harder.

Now, however, the Division II world seems to be flattening. Realignment eliminated the extreme disparities between the division’s largest and smallest schools.

According to April 28 attendance figures, the six DODEA members of DODDS-Europe Division II are separated by just 54 high-school age students, ranging from Rota’s 145 to Ansbach’s 199.

AFNORTH girls coach Christopher Booth said that schools the size of AFNORTH face challenges that larger schools don’t experience. Where larger schools can identify and develop sport-specific talent, smaller schools often struggle to fill complete rosters.

“It may not seem like so much, but there is a huge difference having nearly 400 students to choose from versus only 140 or so,” Booth said.

To that end, realignment has served to even the playing field for the remaining Division II teams.

“There seems to be much more parity of size than there has been in the past,” Booth said. “That is all to the good.”

There are still particular obstacles to soccer success at the Division II level, however. Foremost among them is the presence of non-DODDS international schools that often operate under different standard operating procedures than their DODDS-Europe counterparts. All three DODDS-Europe divisions include at least one international school. International School of Brussels plays in Division I, while Florence plays in Division III.

Both of those schools are top contenders to win their respective European titles.

But Division II has three such programs in AOSR, BFA and Marymount, and all three are very competitive in soccer. One of the reasons for that is cultural, and it goes beyond the mere fact of soccer’s overwhelming popularity in Germany and Italy.

Each spring season, DODEA Division II programs like AFNORTH, Ansbach and Hohenfels offer baseball and softball, sports that are very popular among American youth but all but invisible in Europe. Whereas those schools are losing potential soccer contributors to the diamond, AOSR, BFA and Marymount are devoting nearly their full attention to the pitch.

Meanwhile, those international schools are more likely to keep their athletes around for a full four-year career, avoiding the annual tumult of DODDS-Europe’s dreaded “PCS season,” and those players are more likely to participate in year-round club programs while their DODDS peers drift into the multi-sport career that is typical of the DODDS-Europe athlete: volleyball or football in the fall, basketball in the winter and soccer in the spring.

That can create a competitive gap similar to the one realignment recently addressed. But Rodman and Booth, along with many of their peers, embrace DODDS-Europe’s culture of diversification.

“I want our students to participate in everything they can while they are over here,” Booth said. “It’s my job to make it easier for them, not harder.”

With all these factors in play, true parity will likely always elude an organization as wide-ranging as DODDS-Europe. But at the upcoming European soccer tournament, when at least one new Division II soccer champion will be crowned, it might just inch a little closer.

Twitter: @broomestripes


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