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With the shift of their season from spring to fall for the first time this year, the 10 teams in the Mediterranean Region will play at the same time as their 22 counterparts from north of the Alps when DODDS high schools open their seven-week tennis season Saturday.

Now all the teams that are not located in Belgium or the Netherlands have to do is figure out a way to shift the balance of power away from the Low Countries.

Of the 28 European singles and doubles titles decided since 1999, players from SHAPE, International School of Brussels and Holland-based AFNORTH have carried off 19.

Stopping the Benelux trio will be a tall order in 2006.

SHAPE coach Sam Ochinang is sending out a pair of defending singles champs — juniors Claudio Giraldi and Krista Citovska — when he opens his first campaign as the Spartans’ coach by hosting Bitburg on Saturday.

“I fell into a good situation,” said Ochinang, who last year guided the SHAPE volleyball team after previous stints as tennis coach at Incirlik, Turkey and Würzburg, Germany.

Giraldi captured the 2005 boys crown, beating Michael Sanchez of Heidelberg, 6-2, 6-3, while Citkovska won the girls title with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Shivani Saxena of Milan.

The defending champs, who epitomize the foreign domination of DODDS-Europe tennis, took advantage of their opportunities to improve by playing year round with local clubs in tennis-mad Belgium.

“I can’t take any credit for what they do,” Ochinang said. “They already have strong games. I just discuss strategy with them.”

The Belgian schools’ dominance extends to the team titles, where Guy Santagati’s Division I International School of Brussels team and Division II SHAPE are easily the class of the big school compeition.

Santagati, whose girls doubles title team of Yuna Shibata and Izumi Takeuchi graduated this year, again has a large contingent of talented players.

“This year I have a full girls team,” he said. “I have a lot of ninth- and 10th-graders out. During the season, we will have quite a good team.”

The key phrase, however, is “during the season.” This year’s European tournament at Wiesbaden is scheduled for Oct. 26-28, when ISB will be on its fall recess.

“My two best girls will be gone,” Santagati said. “One will be in Australia, and the other told me she’s already going to be traveling with her family.”

Only Alconbury, which has won the last three Division III championships, has been able to pick the Low Country lock on the crowns. This year the Dragons face some new challenges.

Graduation, and an influx of Med schools which, unlike previous years, will have a chance to qualify more than just their previous season’s champions, could pose problems.

“We have some good players,” Alconbury coach Larry Miller said Friday. “We just don’t have very many.”

The season begins with a full slate of head-to-head matches, plus a three-way meet involving Alconbury and London Central at Lakenheath.

2006 conference lineups

Division I: Heidelberg, International School of Brussels, Kaiserslautern, Lakenheath, Patch, Ramstein, Wiesbaden.

Division II: AFNORTH, Bitburg, Hanau, Mannheim, SHAPE, Vilseck, Würzburg.

Division III: Alconbury, Ansbach, Bamberg, Baumholder, Brussels, Giessen, Hohenfels, London Central.

American Schools in Italy League: American Overseas School of Rome, Aviano, Livorno, Marymount International of Rome, Milan, Naples, Sigonella, Vicenza.

American Schools in Turkey: Ankara, Incirlik.

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