Lancers make short work of two-time defending champs
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 4, 2017
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - A new champion sits atop the DODEA-Europe Division I girls’ volleyball throne.
Third-seed Lakenheath stunned Stuttgart in Saturday’s finals before a vocal crowd at the Vogelweh gym, beating the two-time defending champion and No. 1 seed in three sets, 25-23, 25-23, 25-20, to earn its first volleyball title in recent memory.
While the win may have been surprising, it wasn’t shocking. Lakenheath had defeated Stuttgart during the regular season in four sets, so the Lancers knew another victory was possible.
But it might be a safe bet to say that no one predicted the Panthers would fall in straight sets.
“Astonishment,” was how junior Maya Hagander, an outside hitter for the Lancers, described her feeling in the immediate aftermath of the game.
“We knew we could beat them, we just didn’t know what it would take and how far it would go.”
Both Lakenheath and Stuttgart earned a spot in the finals after prevailing on Friday in five-set semifinal matches, against Naples and Ramstein, respectively.
Early on Saturday, it looked like the two teams might go the distance against each other. Lakenheath squeaked out a nail-biter, 25-23, in the first set, and then the Panthers looked poised to take the second set after tearing out to an 8-3 lead.
But from there, it was anyone’s game with the teams trading points and tying the score no less than 12 times, with an occasional ace, block, and hard-hitting kill overshadowed by errant serves and net balls, on both sides of the court.
But the tiebreak had to come eventually.
With the score tied at 23 and the Panthers two points away from pulling even in the match, they sent a ball out of bounds to give Lakenheath the lead. Hagander then closed out the set with a decisive kill.
The Panthers, up against the wall, seemed determined to take the next set but they couldn’t build on their early 14-9 early lead. The Lancers clawed their way back into the game. With the Panthers hanging on to a precarious 16-15 advantage, Hagander opened it up with four straight aces on serve.
Junior Reese Estus closed the set and the match out with a block at the net to send the Lancers into fits of jubilation and happy tears.
After Lakenheath finished seventh in the tourney two years ago and fourth last year, “we’ve been kind of waiting for this moment since our freshman year,” Estus said of the team’s core of five juniors.
“It doesn’t feel real yet, honestly, but I’m sure it’s going to set in and it’s going to feel really good,” she said.
The Panthers looked crushed by the loss but quickly rebounded and unselfishly gave Lakenheath their due.
“Lakenheath’s just a great team. They honestly really deserve this win,” said Stuttgart junior Carly Sharp, a middle hitter.
The brevity of the match was unexpected, Sharp said.
“We were expecting a little bit more of a fight from our side,” she said. “We thought we would go to five sets. We weren’t getting our serves in and our passes up. We should have taken them further.”
Stuttgart coach Mike Rubino said the Panthers sent too many balls on serve into the net and “weren’t on our game.
“We were on our game last night against Ramstein,” he said. “We just weren’t all there.”
“We got beat by a better team,” he said. Lakenheath “played phenomenally, a great, scrappy team. Every ball was played well.”
Lakenheath coach Dennis Ullery lauded the efforts of Hagander and junior Paige Nielsen. “They are someone we can go to, to control the game, and they consistently did that,” he said.
Also getting kudos was junior Jayden Thormann, a setter for Lakenheath who was named the tournament’s Division I Most Valuable Player.
“Really the entire team did amazing,” said Ullery, in his second year coaching girls’ volleyball at Lakenheath. “Their attitudes were awesome, in terms of just team camaraderie, and finishing the game plan.”
Stuttgart is “hard to predict,” he said. “They’re a really good team.”
Stuttgart junior Geneva Barriger predicted her team will be back next year, in even better form.
“I guess we were on a high from Ramstein and I guess we kind of went down,” she said. “But it’s a wakeup call for next season. We’ll come back next year stronger.”