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European edition, Friday, September 14, 2007

With European Command transformation in high gear, the DODDS-Europe football season, which kicks off Saturday, is a whole new ball game.

Consider these major departures from 2006:

nThe incredible shrinking conference: Just four schools — Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern, Lakenheath and Ramstein — mustered sufficient enrollment figures to qualify for Division I, the school system’s top tier.

nOut of the frying pan, into the fire: Wiesbaden and Patch, Division I schools in 2006, will play D-II this season after their enrollments fell. They are in what arguably is the continent’s toughest division, a 10-team combat zone that includes perennial powers Bitburg and Naples, along with rising power Vilseck and 2006 D-III champ Ansbach.

nNine is enough: Hanau, just two years removed from a European Division II crown, is now among the smallest football-playing high schools in Europe. With only 76 students, the Panthers join Alconbury, Brussels and Menwith Hill in a new four-team Division IV conference that will play nine-man football.

nEndangered species: The Würzburg Wolves, who began this century with three consecutive European D-I titles before moving to Division II last season, will play Division III this year.

nLet’s play two: With the addition of another division, the season-ending Super Six structure — with the three European title games played consecutively at one site in one day — has become a two-day, four-game event. All previous Super Sixes have been played in Baumholder, but the site for the initial Super Eight is undetermined.

Here’s a look at how the season is likely to shape up:nDivision I: Defending champion Ramstein welcomes back Glenn Porter for his ninth turn at the Royals’ helm. Porter, who led Ramstein to the 2003 crown, stepped aside for Carlos Amponin last season. He takes over a team featuring two returning All-Europeans, defensive back Scott Sublousky and offensive lineman Michael Kelly[/BODY].

At Heidelberg, Brad Shahan, coach of three European title teams, is out this season, with Ron Merriwether in as sponsor. The Lions will be built around a pair of returning All-European linemen, Jordan Fackler on offense and Shali Thompson on defense.

Lakenheath also has a new coach in Matt Martinez, leaving Tom Buriss of Kaiserslautern as the only incumbent coach in a division that looks to be small but tough.

“I’m predicting all Division I games will be exciting and close,” Ramstein’s Porter wrote in an e-mail.

nDivision II: Two-way All-Europeans Anton Harris and Randall Pelletier lead a large group of returnees for defending champion Bitburg, but the intriguing aspect of this race is the arrival of former D-I schools Patch and Wiesbaden and D-III power Ansbach, winner of four of the past five European D-III titles.

Ansbach, which has lost just two games in five years, steps into its new league packing three returning All-Europeans, including quarterback John Willis.

“We are excited to be playing in Division II,” Ansbach coach Marcus George wrote in an e-mail. “As the smallest school in the division, we certainly know we are in a numbers battle. Hopefully, our traditions and programs will help us be competitive….”

D-II opens with a possible future playoff matchup with Bitburg hosting Vilseck, which has a pair of 6-foot-4 wideouts who run the 40 in 4.5 seconds, according to coach Billy Ratcliff. Naples, the 2006 D-II runner-up, opens at Wiesbaden in another test.

Coaching changes in the division include Richard Dahlstrom taking over at Aviano, Allen Archie at Patch and Gil Grant at International School of Brussels.

nDivision III: Parity is the rule here, according to veteran Baumholder coach Carter Hollenbeck.

“I don’t think there will be an easy game this year,” wrote Hollenbeck, whose Bucs are bolstered by returning All-European lineman Evan Stroupe and open with a difficult road trip to Rota.

Also in Hollenbeck’s conference is last year’s D-III runner-up AFNORTH, which returns All-European linebacker Brock Blankenship.

In the South, Ed Lynch ends his one-year coaching hiatus from the Hohenfels bench. Other coaching changes have Juanita Johnson-Archie replacing Eric Mead at Würzburg and Jen Bunyan taking charge at Sigonella.

nDivision IV: Look for the nine-man game to transform this league into an offensive show.

“With two fewer players on the same size field, it should be wide open,” Hanau’s Sam Cassou predicted.

For a change, Menwith Hill is neither the smallest school in population (81 students to Hanau’s 76) nor in physical size, according to coach Pete Resnick, who’ll field a 242-pound tailback in Le’Shawn Adams and who can start a line averaging 251 pounds.

Each D-IV team has nonconference games against D-III schools, and in those games the number of players on the field will be negotiated by the teams.

Duke Eidt takes the reins at Alconbury, the largest D-IV school with 121 students, and Lee Hill and William Hill step in at Brussels.

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