Kaiserslautern finally breaks through
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- It doesn’t get much better than this for a high school sports team.
The Kaiserslautern Raiders won the program’s first ever championship, on their home field, in front of a frenzied home crowd, and at the expense of their longtime nemesis and fierce archrival. The Raiders’ 3-1 defeat of the Ramstein Royals on Saturday at Kaiserslautern High School earned Kaiserslautern the 2017 DODEA-Europe Division I boys soccer championship and completed an undefeated season of dominance, and destiny.
“Finally, man,” an emotional Alexander Dexter, the team’s four-year star striker, said as the celebration still swirled around him. “Finally.”
The match eventually came to line up with the Raiders’ template of high-powered offense and steady shutdown defense. But fourth-seeded Ramstein, the only team to give the top-seeded Raiders real problems in a 2-1 regular-season Kaiserslautern win, wasn’t eager to line up as its rival’s latest and last victim.
Royals forward Anthony Villella slipped behind the Raider defense 14 minutes into the game and converted the first goal scored this tournament against Kaiserslautern’s stalwart defense. The goal raised the possibility of another Kaiserslautern playoff disappointment, on par with its 2016 semifinal loss to Lakenheath and loss to these same Royals in the 2014 European championship match.
But this Raider team wouldn’t be suppressed for long.
Kaiserslautern struck back almost instantly and built what would hold up as the final three-goal margin before halftime on goals by Thomas Robinson, Tyler Jankowski and Pablo Zorrilla. Jankowski scored by lacing a corner kick directly into the upper reaches of the Royal net, a remarkable highlight that neatly embodied the team’s highly aesthetic style of play.
For Jankowski, that goal, and the two that surrounded it, also exhibited that the Raiders weren’t bothered in the least by Ramstein’s early lead.
“We weren’t at all,” Jankowski said. “We knew we had it.”
An early deficit obviously wasn’t in the game plan of Kaiserslautern coach Enrique John. But the Raiders’ response to that adversity was exactly what he wanted to see.
“When you get to the last game of the season, you just have to keep playing,” John said. “If you are persistent, and you keep calm, and you keep up the fight, that’s the result.”
Ramstein’s defensive-minded, offensively limited squad was admittedly ill-equipped to recover from deficits. The Royals found success in the regular season and postseason by grinding out just enough opportunistic offense in low-scoring, low-margin draws and wins. But that approach proved futile against the Raider machine, both in the Royals’ 3-0 pool-play to Kaiserslautern on Thursday and in Saturday’s title match.
“Our game plan worked fine for 20 minutes,” Ramstein coach Dominik Ludes said. “We gave them a run for their money.”
But the smart money Saturday was on the Raiders, who shook off every obstacle in their path to earn the jubilant, cathartic championship party that took over the Kaiserslautern pitch late Saturday night.
The win was particularly poignant for seniors such as Thomas Robinson and Dexter, both of whom were members of the 2014 team that lost to Ramstein in the championship match. That promising group had all the markers of a future champion, potential that was finally realized Saturday.
“Every year we worked harder and harder, it just didn’t go our way,” said Dexter, the tournament’s MVP. “This year we just decided that we deserved to win.”