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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — If you love high school sports, Aviano was the place to be this weekend.

Even if you had to drive hours and hours to get there. In fact, that’s what most of the athletes participating in a regional wrestling tournament and eight basketball games did.

“All told, 16 hours,” said Würzburg wrestling coach Steve Kennedy, whose team picked up Ansbach and then met all the schools from Italy in a qualifier for the European wrestling finals.

It was a 14-hour trip for the Patch basketball teams from Stuttgart, Germany. Their counterparts from Vilseck made it in nine. Each team — boys and girls — took on Naples and Aviano, for a total of eight basketball games at the base gym.

The schools in Italy are used to traveling long distances at this time of the year. But having their counterparts from Germany visit during the winter sports season is a rarity. Aviano hadn’t hosted a basketball team from Germany since 1998.

With the European championships in wrestling and basketball scheduled for locations in Germany, the Italy-based schools will be on the road again. This weekend, their counterparts from Germany got a glimpse of what a long road trip can be like.

“It was definitely a long trip,” said Vilseck girls coach John Mitchell, whose team split two games. “And it was very good coming down a day early.”

Vilseck traveled over the Alps on Thursday, then spent part of Friday visiting Venice on a cultural trip that boys coach Rick Ritter arranged.

“One of our guys, as we were traveling along the Grand Canal, said, ‘Hey, this is nice. I don’t get off base much,’ ” said Ritter, whose team lost twice during the weekend. “If nothing else, at least we got something out of the trip.”

Naples is a frequent visitor to Aviano. But it still took about nine hours for the Wildcats to make the trip north.

Boys coach Richard Elliott, whose team won twice, said his team wants all the competition it can get. Naples has only hosted a home game once this year and will finish its regular season by entertaining Sigonella.

Aviano and Naples will move up to Division II for the European championships. This was the first chance either got to see a team outside of Italy play.

Of course, that works both ways.

“This was the first time we had ever played,” Patch girls coach Walter Fritz said after his team lost to Naples. “So this was like the mystery team.”

With finances always tight and some communities in Germany likely to shrink in the coming years, the format is one schools in Europe may see more often.

“As DODDS gets smaller, I think it’s a way they’re going to have to do it,” Aviano girls coach Laura Corder-Chavez said. “It’s not just a good deal for us because we’re here. It’s a good deal when three or four teams meet.”

Mitchell said the multiple team format was a regular feature when he coached in Japan. He was one of several coaches who said they’d like to see even more games during a weekend. He said that would be easier to arrange if the boys teams and girls teams visited on separate weekends.

Across town at the wrestling tournament, Kennedy said that traveling such long distances can wear on kids — and coaches.

“Was it worth it? Yeah, because we don’t get to see these guys,” he said.

The tournament was one of four regional qualifiers held this weekend by DODDS, with the top two finishers from each weight class — plus four wild cards from each regional — advancing to the European tournament. In the past, DODDS held separate tournaments for Divisions I, II and II to select the European finalists.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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