High school softball opens its 2009 season Saturday on the widest playing field it’s had since play began in 1999.

"We have 19 girls out for softball, which is very exciting for our first season," reported Sigonella coach Amy Driscoll, whose Jaguars are part of a new four-team Italy-based league. "The girls are thrilled to be part of this first-ever team."

Sigonella will be vying against Aviano, Naples and Vicenza before going on to the European Small Schools (Division III-IV) tournament May 21-23 at Ramstein.

Altogether, 23 schools, ranging from Lajes in the west to Incirlik in the east, will compete for this season’s three European championships. Here’s how each race shapes up:

Division I: Based on the number of returning All-Europeans and the history of the division, Lakenheath and Ramstein automatically rate as leading contenders.Ramstein, which has won six of the 10 DODDS-Europe Division I titles, welcomes back All-European pitcher Maddie Byrd (8-0, 18 Ks in two tournament victories), a sophomore, and All-European junior shortstop-pitcher Lindsey Jones (.695 BA, 6-0 overall), along with five others from last season and a couple of promising freshmen.

"Sorry, guys," Ramstein coach Kent Grosshuesch e-mailed, "we will be tough again."

Lakenheath, which won the four D-I championships Ramstein didn’t claim, goes the Lady Royals one better by welcoming back three All-Europeans from 2008 — senior catcher-pitcher Lisa McBride (.572 BA, 22 RBI), senior infielder-pitcher Jessica Serd (.634 BA, five home runs) and junior pitcher-infielder Ali Parkerson (7-2, .426 BA).

Lakenheath coach John Gilmore, however, isn’t getting his pitching rotation set for the title game just yet.

"We lost our starting shortstop, No. 4 hitter and an infielder [to transfer]," Gilmore reported. "We have a lot of work ahead of us in order to be able to compete with the top teams."

Gilmore makes a good point. This year’s D-I race, as exemplified by the transfer of All-Europe second team outfielder-shortstop Biannca Lopez (.560 BA, 18 RBI) from Ramstein to D-I rival Patch, could be one of the most competitive ever.

"From what I have seen from the fall and winter seasons, there are some very good female athletes at several schools, including Vilseck, Heidelberg, Ramstein and Patch…," he reported. "I feel there could be three or four teams fighting for that No. 1 spot."

Division II: Wiesbaden, the defending champion, welcomes back junior outfielder-pitcher Wanda Jerry (.667 BA), who batted .834 in the tournament. But Warriors coach Candie Lopez said she’s rebuilding in 2009.

"We have a really young team," she said. "We have (junior) Sarah Carrin, who played shortstop last year, and (junior pitcher-outfielder-third baseman) Darian Sealey back. The rest are new."

New, but promising.

"I have a secret weapon," Lopez revealed. "We’re teaching (sophomore all-region basketball player) LeAmber Thomas to play softball. She’s coming along."

Wiesbaden will miss the stick of graduated All-European Nancy Jensen, but that’s nothing compared to the loss of three All-Europeans to graduation at perennial D-II contender Bitburg. The addition of newcomers Aviano and Naples to the usual mix of Ansbach, Bamberg, Mannheim and SHAPE only adds to the unfolding mystery in D-II.

"We won’t know anything," Lopez predicted, "until the season starts."

Small schools: Defending champion Rota returns senior All-Europe outfielder Vanessa Frost (.618 BA, 53 RBI, 42 stolen bases), the Small Schools MVP in 2008, and according to Alconbury’s Duke Eidt, has to be penciled in as a contender again.

"Like most years, both Rota and Baumholder should be the favorites," e-mailed Eidt, whose Dragons are also perennial challengers. "They always have very competitive players and good coaching."

Eidt said the prospect of additional competition from newcomers Sigonella and Vicenza adds spice to the sport.

"I think it’s great that the Italy teams have picked up softball," he wrote. "It should make this year’s tournament very exciting."

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