It isn't easy, but Stuttgart caps perfect season with title
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2017
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- In a game full of big plays, the Stuttgart Panthers made the ones that mattered most. And those earned them the 2017 DODEA-Europe Division I football championship.
The Panthers beat the rival Ramstein Royals 26-21 on Saturday at Kaiserslautern High School, producing a go-ahead touchdown and two key defensive plays in a thrilling final sequence that delivered the program’s second title in three seasons.
Panther standout Devon Burton neatly summarized the postgame feelings of his team, a confident powerhouse relieved to have survived the ultimate test that was every bit as arduous as anticipated.
“It’s expected,” Burton said of the Stuttgart title. “But we’re humble.”
Down 21-20 midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers introduced a new addition to their already stuffed offensive playbook. Running back Burton sliced down the middle of the field, hauled in a spot-on ball from Chris Magalona and evaded a few Royal tacklers on the way to what would stand up as the game-winning touchdown.
Stuttgart coach Billy Ratcliff explained that he figured the Panthers’ dangerous wide receivers would draw enough defensive attention to leave the middle open for the speedy Burton coming out of the backfield.
“We had never thrown that before until we worked on it this last week,” Ratcliff said. “We felt that that would be there.”
No lead was safe in this game full of momentum swings, however, and the late Panther advantage was no exception. Ramstein offered an immediate response, orchestrating a drive deep into Panther territory and threatening a go-ahead score of its own.
The Stuttgart defense was up to the challenge. Dalton Phelps powered through the Ramstein offensive line for a sack that flung the Royals far out of the red zone and set up a fourth down and long situation for Ramstein.
“I just got hyped up and I just made the play,” Phelps said. “It means the world to me and it means the world to my team.”
Undeterred, the Royals unleashed a sideline pass play that looked destined for six points until Will Tonder made a diving, game-saving deflection to return possession to Stuttgart with under two minutes to play. A few productive, clock-draining runs sealed the victory.
Ramstein coach Carter Hollenbeck said a game as close as Saturday’s could “go either way” and complimented his team for its efforts.
“We played hard, we had fun and respected the game,” Hollenbeck said. “That’s all we ask for.”
Hollenbeck was equally generous with praise for the Panther program and its leader.
“They have a fantastic team led by Billy Ratcliff,” Hollenbeck said. “He’s a classy guy, he’s an awesome guy and he deserves this.”
Ratcliff had a similar take on the matchup, and the outcome.
“They’re a great team, they’re well-coached,” Ratcliff said. “I would say we just made a few more plays than they did.”
Both teams made plenty of winning plays before the Panthers strung together the ones that led to the win.
Gevaughn Bracy delivered two long touchdown runs, including a third-quarter score that put the Royals ahead until the Panthers’ final sequence. Burton finished with 109 rushing yards and a touchdown to go with his game-winning catch. Stuttgart’s Christian Walker recovered a fumble in the end zone for Stuttgart’s first score and matched Alex Ploechinger with a team-high 16 tackles.
This championship was markedly different from the title Stuttgart won in 2015. That year, the Panthers took a losing record into the semifinals but knocked off favored Ramstein in the semifinals and Wiesbaden in the final, both on dramatic finishes capped by last-second kicks.
Stuttgart toned down the drama this season, instead seizing control of the division from the outset and never letting go. The Panthers emerged as favorites with an impressive show of force and talent at the annual preseason football camp in August. They quickly made good on that promise with a 22-9 defeat of Ramstein on Sept. 15, proceeded through the balance of their schedule without a loss and ousted Lakenheath in a lopsided semifinal to reach Saturday’s final.
Ratcliff relished the thoroughness of this title, coming at the end of a perfect season and against a Ramstein program that has appeared in 14 of the last 18 European championship games, as compared to what he called the “tainted aspect” of the “Cinderella” 2015 season fueled by “trick plays” and late-game kicks.
“This time we finished undefeated,” Ratcliff said. “We pretty much dominated everybody except for Ramstein.”