Five of the six teams involved in this weekend’s DODDS-Europe marksmanship championship meet know they are competing for second place. That won’t stop them from competing.

The Stuttgart Panthers are all but assured of winning a third consecutive European championship Saturday at Vilseck High School. The program, despite an entirely new top flight of shooters, has posted DODDS-Europe’s best team score each week of the regular season by a significant margin, and Panther shooters occupy eight of the top 10 spots on the list of the winter’s best individual performances.

So while a championship is the most conventional goal for a team entering a championship meet, Stuttgart’s five challengers - the Alconbury Dragons, Hohenfels Tigers, Kaiserslautern Raiders, Vilseck Falcons and Wiesbaden Warriors - have identified their own motivations.

Alconbury will make its debut appearance in the European championship meet, executing an unexpected but welcome leap onto the upper tier of DODDS-Europe marksmanship.

“Getting to Europeans wasn’t a goal this year,” Alconbury coach John Pardo said. “We thought this would be more of a rebuilding year, but the team managed to make substantial improvements from week to week.”

The Dragons finished just ahead of Baumholder in the back-and-forth race for the sixth and final berth in the European finals, replacing former finals mainstay Ansbach as Cougar athletics continues to feel the effects of its rapidly shrinking school population.

An eventful final weekend made the difference for Alconbury.

The Dragons were scheduled to compete with Baumholder, Bitburg, Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart and the host Warriors on Saturday in the final western conference meet of the regular season. Alconbury left its base in the United Kingdom far earlier than the other German participants were set to depart; as a result, they pulled into town ahead of the wintry mix that would eventually cause dangerous road conditions and prompt the other participants to compete remotely. Considering the circumstances, however, Wiesbaden allowed the Dragons to shoot on site.

The unconventional situation agreed with Alconbury. The Dragons posted a season-high 1,314 points, and Pardo said five of six shooters tied or set personal records. That gave Alconbury 6,318 points on the season, compared to the 6,304 totaled by Baumholder, which shot 1,295 on Saturday.

While Alconbury will happily occupy the bottom seed in the six-team meet Saturday, an increasingly formidable Kaiserslautern team is hoping for more of the incremental progress that could eventually put the program in line to supplant Stuttgart.

“Most of them have been improving all year long,” Raiders coach Robert Meyer said of his shooters. “Inconsistency has been their limitation.”

Despite those lapses, Kaiserslautern is on the upswing. The Raiders finished second at last year’s European meet and set a new school record with 1,360 points Saturday.

“Overall I have a stronger team going into this year’s competition than I did last year,” Meyer said.

The Raiders may need every point of that steadily-growing total to fend off large-school rivals Vilseck and Wiesbaden. The Falcons won four of five eastern conference regular-season meets, slipping just once in a Jan. 16 loss to Hohenfels. Wiesbaden edged the Raiders for second place behind Stuttgart in the shoulder-to-shoulder western conference meet held Jan. 9, somewhat spoiling the first time Kaiserslautern ever hosted a DODDS-Europe meet.

While this jockeying goes on, the champion Panthers hover a level above it. Coach Raul Pinon said his team is more focused on an upcoming JROTC regional championship in Ohio than the European championship meet. As for DODDS-Europe, Stuttgart is most interested in measuring up to the program’s rich history and the pushing the personal bests of its individual shooters, which this year is a group of underclassmen that has proven immediately ready to live up to the Panthers’ high standards.

“I’m extremely pleased with the Panthers’ performance, especially since they are such a young team,” Pinon said. “There’s no better team that I’d rather be a part of.”

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