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The three-time defending Division I and II softball champions Lakenheath and Bitburg will have to overcome a war-ravaged schedule and stiff opposition this year if either hopes to retain their crowns.

And as the season begins Friday, the plight for Division III schools remains in question. Perennial powers such as Lajes and Rota might not even get to play because of force protection concerns. Newcomer Incirlik saw its student body decimated by a non-combatant evacuation.

Even by the standards of DODDS-Europe, where player movement is the rule, the 2003 softball season will be more fluid than the Persian Gulf. Anything might happen between Saturday’s openers and the European tournaments scheduled for May 22-24 at Landstuhl, Germany.

Division I

Lakenheath head coach John Gilmore thinks his Lady Lancers will face serious challenges this year. A number of schools, notably Ramstein, Heidelberg and Wiesbaden, could stop Lakenheath from grabbing its a fourth straight crown.

Making matters worse for Lakenheath, Gilmore said, the team has a number of holes to fill, especially concerning its defense and pitching.

“We will be looking for a pitcher,” said Gilmore, who said goodbye to his ace, Division I tournament MVP Dana Miller after last season.

It’s not all grim, however. Lakenheath returns Natasha Valley, Meghan Quasney, an All-Europe player last year, Erin Davies, Natalie Hanagan, Andrea McCoy and Amanda Hood.

Pitching may be a concern for Lakenheath, but many other schools have their best hurlers back on the mound.

Heidelbeg’s Meagan Perry, an All-Europe player, will return to see if she can pitch past Lakenheath this year. Perry managed to lead her team to second place last year, losing to Lakenheath in the championship. Perry returns D-I all-tourney catcher Carissa Beach and junior shortstop Catie Arthur, coach Al Simoncic said.

Ramstein’s coach Kent Grosshuesch also welcomes back his ace, Jenn Morton, along with catcher Megan Hillard, second baseman Amanda LaPlante and shortstop Tatrika Polite. All were starters on last year’s team that went undefeated during the regular season.

Wiesbaden’s Candie Lopez has back senior shortstop Kaitlin O’Neal and infielder Ana Lohmer, along with 2002 all-tourney hurler Stephanie Snow. Lopez’s squad will draw more strength from hard-hitting Hanau transfer Kristin Kodalen and freshman Lizzie Penzien, as well as returnees Melissa Mueller, Meagan Ionoff and Kathryn Richardson.

Kaiserslautern’s coach Robert Careless will have to find many new starters to give his team a fighting chance — only three Lady Raiders, first baseman Amanda Van Way, catcher Natasha Carlson and outfielder Jordan Maus, return.

Hardest to replace will be departed ace Stevie Holguin. However, assistant coach John Culbreth is known for developing pitching talent.

Division II

The four-team D-II field had to scramble to save opening day. Bitburg had its canceled non-conference date at Baumholder reinstated on Wednesday, and AFNORTH and Mannheim arranged to play in a mini-tournament Friday and Saturday at Lakenheath.

Bitburg’s Hope Matthews likes her team’s chances for title No. 4, especially since a school-record seven varsity players will return.

Chief among the returnees is the 2002 D-II tournament MVP, pitcher Tanja Moore, along with fellow hurlers Krystle Vasquez and Casey Martin. They’ll be joined by freshman hurler Ashley Kazimer.

Also returning are Kaitlyn Phillips, Olivia Eschborn, Amy Hughen and Julie Brei-Crawley.

Division III

Reigning champion Alconbury graduated All-Europe ace Kristin Hudson, but it appears that the Dragons are not the only D-III school to lose season starters. London Central is “very green,” according to coach Victoria Murphy, as are Giessen and Baumholder, the remaining teams in the league.

Baumholder will have five-time two-sport All-Europe star Katie Feterl playing shortstop for coach Gary Himango.

Dominique Perez will anchor the pitching staff and Shawntae Price will do the catching. Freshman Katie Holman and outfielder Regina Fierro will also contribute, Himango said.

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