When DODDS-Europe begins the high school softball season Saturday, some of the most prominent among its 16 teams will be fielding almost wholly new lineups.

“We are a completely different team from last year,” said Ramstein’s Kent Grosshuesch, whose Lady Royals will open their quest for a fourth straight Division I championship on the road Saturday against Patch. “We lost all five All-Europe players.”

Grosshuesch is not alone. Perennial power Lakenheath, which has won the three European Division I titles not earned by Ramstein since the high schools began playing softball in 1999, said goodbye to its two All-European first-teamers, and Heidelberg lost All-Europe first-teamer Brittany Clark.

The scenario is the same in the small schools. Defending Small Schools champion Rota has been hit by unit redeployments, while All-Europeans Carly Bascom and Reva Ballard are no longer available to perennial power Alconbury.

To cope with his departures, Grosshuesch has shuffled his returnees and promoted several players from Ramstein’s potent JV program.

“It should be a challenge this year, but fun,” said Grosshuesch, who sees pitching-rich Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern, along with Lakenheath, as the main Division I contenders this year.

“We will have to play ‘D’ and hit the ball a ton.”

Although he’s without his 2005 All-Europe first-teamers, Lakenheath’s John Gilmore does have 2005 All-Europe second-team pitcher Brynn Liptor on his roster, along with returning center fielder Ashley Mansfield. The rest are untested.

But Gilmore’s hopeful.

“We have a lot of young kids coming in,” he said. “They’re going to have to help us big time.”

Wiesbaden and Würzburg are the other Division I teams, and the Lady Warriors are excited about their incoming pitcher, Jessica Smith, and returning captains Maggie Fountain and Kayla Branam. Würzburg returns pitcher Kordia Holmes.

Four Division II schools, Bitburg, Patch, Mannheim and Hanau, will field teams this season. Division III has been reduced to Baumholder, London Central and Alconbury, who will be joined at tournament time by Rota, Lajes and Incirlik.

Expect Patch and Bitburg to battle in Division II.

Patch’s fortunes will ride the overpowering right arm of Kasy’e Lalau, the continent’s best pitcher. Lalau, a junior, struck out 130 batters in her 14 starts last season while batting .512.

Her fellow All-Europe Panther, Lauren Sanchez, also returns. Sanchez slugged five home runs, drove in 56 runs and batted .643 last season.

Bitburg, which won four consecutive European titles between 2000 and 2003, always has a strong feeder program. The Lady Barons must replace All-Europe catcher Monica Bintz, who transferred, but returns All-Europe pitcher Ashley Kazimer, who struck out 91 batters last year.

This year’s Small Schools powers probably won’t emerge until May, when all six teams meet for the Europeans in Ramstein. London Central and Alconbury, however, will be able to size each other up March 25 at a three-way event in Lakenheath.

Late winter snows have left playing fields in poor condition and have already claimed Saturday’s scheduled doubleheader between Wiesbaden and Hanau. Just three twin bills remain on the opening day schedule: Ramstein at Patch, Mannheim at Heidelberg and Bitburg at Würzburg. Even those three are shaky.

“They looked at the field Monday and said it was too wet,” Würzburg’s Juanita Johnson-Archie said. “They said they’d decide Thursday whether or not we can play.”

Play begins in full March 25, with the season pausing after its April 1 schedule for spring break. Softball resumes April 22, with the European tournaments scheduled for May 17-20 at Ramstein.

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