Foes hope that this is year someone catches Panthers
December 1, 2016
The most compelling race in recent DODEA-Europe wrestling history has been for second place.
Three different programs have claimed that runner-up spot over the past three winters, including Wiesbaden in 2013, Lakenheath in 2014 and Ramstein in 2015. The margin separating first and second has grown smaller each year, but the winner has remained steadfast.
The Stuttgart Panthers are stubborn champions.
The three-time defending champs open pursuit of a fourth straight title on Saturday as the 2016-17 DODEA-Europe wrestling season opens its eight-week schedule. The slate includes six regular-season meets, separated by a month-long intermission for the holidays, followed by sectional qualifiers on Feb. 11 and the European championships Feb. 17-18.
Stuttgart coach Norm Matzke said he has a “young, less-experienced team to work with” this winter when compared with previous seasons. Still, the program’s grueling tryout process, intense practice sessions and consistent regular-season improvements have reliably produced new championship-caliber entries in time for the tournament. And this year’s group has a head start in that area with three returning European champions in Benjamin Fielding (120), Matthew Bolduc (126 in 2015) and Kevin Wentland (170).
Ramstein came close to ending Stuttgart’s title reign last season, falling just eight and a half points short of the Panthers’ winning total. The Royals will redouble their efforts this winter, coach Thomas Wright said, around the mission statement of “14/6” - a European qualifier at each of the 14 weight classes, with each finishing in the top six at the European tournament. Returning European champions Joshua Garcia (106) and Stanley Cruz (126) provide a solid foundation for the ambitious project.
While Stuttgart and Ramstein boast roster depth that is difficult for smaller schools to match, that won’t stop those quality Division I rivals from trying.
Lakenheath could continue its recent surge despite just 11 returning varsity wrestlers. The small but solid Lancers roster includes three 2015-16 European runners-up in J.P Krussick, Preston Booth and Brandon Lovett. Vilseck has 13 returnees among its 32 wrestlers, including senior heavyweight Kenneth Hooks. Returning European runner-up Gabriel Charlifue headlines Wiesbaden’s 10 returning wrestlers.
The numbers game is even more pronounced at the Division II and III levels. Bitburg has finished second in Division II for three years running, and two-time champion Hohenfels’ transition to Division III leaves the Barons in line to claim that elusive title. But Bitburg has just 10 wrestlers, including European qualifiers Henry Etheridge and Kurt Nacionales, and none above 170 pounds.
Aviano, AFNORTH and Rota will challenge Bitburg’s ascension. Optimistic Aviano could jump the Barons if it advances a good percentage of its 27 wrestlers to points-gathering tournament placements. Coach Robin Clement said the Saints, with 11 returning wrestlers and two experienced transfers, have “depth that we haven’t had for a few years.”
Baumholder, Brussels and Sigonella figure to push Hohenfels and reigning Division III champion Alconbury for small-school honors. New coach Kevin Peterson arrives from Matthew C. Perry in Japan ready to “set the bar high” for Baumholder, Brussels has a crop of promising freshmen and newcomers among its 12 wrestlers; and Sigonella has a pair of returning European qualifiers to build around.