Spangdahlem-Rota matchup could be start of rivalry
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2017
Somehow, the Spangdahlem Sentinels and Rota Admirals have avoided becoming football archrivals. That’s likely about to change.
Spangdahlem, known until this year as the Bitburg Barons, has been among DODEA-Europe’s Division II football elite for decades, including a stretch of four straight European championships from 2009 to 2012. But the program hasn’t won a title, or even been to a championship game, in the four years since that remarkable run, though it has remained a mainstay of the divisional playoffs.
The Sentinels’ slide roughly coincides with Rota’s rise to prominence in the division.
The Admirals lost in the Division III title game in 2012, the same year Bitburg won its most recent Division II championship. When Division III was abolished the following season, Rota required a year of acclimation to the higher level of competition it found in Division II. But after one winless season, the Admirals began their steady climb. They cracked the postseason in 2014, played in the title game in 2015 and won the Division II European title in 2016.
But even as both schools were centrally involved in this shift of divisional gridiron power, their paths hardly crossed. Bitburg and Rota played in the regular season each year, with the Barons winning big in 2014 and Rota claiming close wins in 2015 and 2016. But those games never hindered either team’s playoff push, and the two never met in the postseason. Even as they occupied the same lofty tier of DODEA-Europe football, the two programs seemed to exist in parallel universes.
That was largely because of the presence of the Ansbach Cougars.
Bitburg and Ansbach stood as the twin pillars of Division II football for the last decade. One of the two claimed every championship between 2006 and 2015, save for the 2013 title won by Hohenfels. But while Bitburg struggled to recuperate from its 2013 setback, the Cougars emerged on the other side a rejuvenated contender. Ansbach, even as its population and talent base contracted, took the next two titles and fought valiantly in 2016 before finally giving way to the relentless Admirals.
But the numbers caught up with Ansbach this year, forcing the school to fold - perhaps temporarily, or perhaps permanently - its football program.
That leaves Spangdahlem and Rota, finally, to engage in a proper, head-to-head rivalry. If that rivalry does indeed gain traction this fall and in seasons to follow, its origin will be tracked to this weekend.
The Admirals visit Spangdahlem on Saturday in a Northern region game that promises to be the highlight of the 2017 regular season and a potential preview of the Nov. 4 championship game.
Each team has been ruthlessly dominant over the season’s first two weeks, to the point that neither has allowed so much as a touchdown. The Admirals own a 28-0 defeat of Naples and a 39-2 decision over AFNORTH/Brussels. Spangdahlem boasts even more lopsided math in the form of a 64-0 win over Hohenfels and a 60-0 defeat of SHAPE. Those outcomes have left the Admirals and Sentinels among just three unbeaten teams remaining in Division II, alongside Southern upstart Aviano.
Both coaches are eager for the matchup and the particular problems their opponent presents. Befitting their recent history, Spangdahlem and Rota bring vastly different approaches to the football field. Despite their gaudier numbers, the Sentinels deploy a more straight-ahead, traditional offense when compared to the more audacious Admirals.
“This is a matchup of styles,” Rota coach Ken Walter said. “We use speed and open-field running. They like power football and embracing the grind.”
Spangdahlem coach Mike Laue has a similar perspective on both teams.
“As always, we work to get better at what we do,” Laue said. “Fewer mistakes, better conditioning, play the best we can.”
The problems presented by the Admirals, meanwhile, are considerable.
“They run a wide open offense and spread the field, opening lanes for their running backs and receivers,” Laue said. “We will need to make those lanes fewer and smaller.”
The teams’ divergent styles even extend to the coaches. Laue declined to lend hype to this weekend’s matchup, stating simply that “every game is important to win.” But Walter was happy to consider the implications, as unpredictable as they may be.
“I think whoever wins this game has an advantage in the second match from a psychological aspect. But it is also hard to beat a good team twice in a season,” Walter said. “If history is an indicator, it should be a very competitive game.”
Maybe even the start of a very competitive new rivalry.