The Vicenza Cougars and Naples Wildcats see their first Division I action of the DODEA-Europe girls volleyball season this weekend as the Vilseck Falcons and defending European champion Stuttgart Panthers pay a visit to Italy.

Other than each other, the Cougars and Wildcats won’t face any divisional opponents this fall until next month’s European tournament. That makes this weekend a valuable opportunity for the programs to see where they stand against the DODEA-Europe elite.

And it doesn’t get much more elite than Stuttgart. The Panthers lost much of the roster that won last year’s Division I championship, and it appeared they might drop out of championship contention for a year or so. But if this is a rebuilding project, it’s well ahead of schedule.

Stuttgart brings a 6-0 overall record to Italy, a mark built mostly against lower-division fodder but highlighted by a 25-20, 21-25, 25-20, 26-24 defeat of perennial championship contender Ramstein. That four-set win over the Royals represents the only time the Panthers have dropped a set this season.

Both Italian teams will get their shots at the unbeaten champs this weekend as DODEA-Europe maximizes its travel dollars and pits each of Naples and Vicenza against both German visitors.

The Cougars and Wildcats are both undefeated after spending the season’s early weeks slapping around the overmatched lower-division neighbors that comprise the bulk of their schedules. That makes it difficult to judge exactly how good they’ll be against big-school powers like Stuttgart.

But Vicenza and Naples are more than regional bullies, and the programs are long past the point of having to prove that they belong at DODEA-Europe’s highest level. Naples introduced Italian volleyball to the Division I stage with a run to the championship match in 2014; Vicenza got there a year ago, where the Cougars took a loss to Stuttgart.

This weekend offers both Naples and Vicenza an opportunity to take another step towards the title they’ve both come tantalizingly close to seizing.

Twitter: @broomestripes

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