On the sunny Mediterranean coast of Italy, far removed from the flurries, gusts and ravaged turf that have thrown the rest of the DODDS-Europe sports scene into disarray, America’s favorite warm-weather sports have found a proper spring home.

The whole of DODDS-Europe’s Italian baseball and softball contingents – Aviano, Sigonella, Vicenza and host Naples – will gather on the diamonds at Naples MWR facility Carney Park on Friday and Saturday, an annual retreat that is a highlight of the participating teams’ schedule.

The visiting teams will stay in on-site cabins, sharing meals at its restaurant and picnic tables in the inevitable downtime produced by two full days on the diamonds. Many of each school’s players, parents and coaches know their counterparts well from previous springs and other sports.

“It’s nice to get to see all the teams at once,” Naples softball coach Jesse Costa said. “My girls love hanging out with the other teams and getting to know them.”

The event highlights the benefits and challenges of playing baseball and softball in Italy. The teams are geographically distant from the vast majority of their DODDS-Europe opponents; the twin constraints of time and money demand that they dip into the crowded Central Europe field only for the postseason. And they are philosophically separated from potential in-country opponents like Florence and American Overseas School of Rome; those international schools contend for and win DODDS soccer championships but don’t operate baseball or softball programs.

That leaves the four schools to spend essentially their entire seasons in round-robin play, trading home-and-home series, gathering for four-way festivals like this weekend’s and building relationships that transcend allegiances to team and school.

But the weekend is not all about camaraderie. At its heart, however friendly, is competition.

Naples, which boasts the largest student population, is the established regional frontrunner on both diamonds. The Wildcat softball team won the 2012 Division II European championship at the end of an undefeated season.

Vicenza, however, struck a shocking blow to Wildcat baseball with a 21-0 outburst in the 2012 DODDS-Europe Division II/III third-place game, possibly reconfiguring the balance of power. But both teams sat on the sidelines as SHAPE and Bitburg played for the European crown.

As Naples baseball coach Duke Marlow explained, Italian baseball teams are “trying to ascend to the championship level.”

With no access to their northern foes until the postseason, DODDS-Europe’s Italy-based baseball and softball teams will continue to fight amongst themselves – in the most agreeable way possible.

“We play very hard. We compete to beat each other as much as we can,” Marlow said. “But we all respect each other.”

Twitter: @broomestripes

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