D-I boys

Vilseck snaps Ramstein's reign over Europe basketball

Cameron Gaetos of Vilseck avoids Luis Figueroa to go in for a basket in the boys Division I final at the DODEA-Europe basketball championships in Wiesbaden, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. Vilseck took the title with a 56-42 win.


By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 22, 2020

WIESBADEN, Germany – The Royal reign is over, taken down by a voracious Vilseck Falcons team with an appetite for a championship.

Vilseck blitzed the five-time defending champion Ramstein Royals on Saturday at Clay Kaserne Fitness Center, claiming a 56-42 victory in a physical, raucous DODEA-Europe Division I title game that emphatically ended a seemingly stable half-decade dynasty.

“This was an unbelievable run by these guys,” Vilseck coach Rick Ritter said. “They really came together.”

Indicators of Vilseck’s imminent coup were visible over the most recent stretch of DODEA-Europe hoops.

The Falcons handled Black Forest Academy twice at the end of the regular season to snatch the tournament’s second seed and share a pool with the top-seeded Royals. Then, even after losing twice to Ramstein in the regular season, they landed a direct blow to the champion’s chin with a pool-play defeat. The Falcons finished off an undefeated pool play run to reach the elimination round. Then they bested Black Forest again, this time in an overtime semifinal, to earn their title shot.

Each subsequent achievement boosted the Falcons’ bravado, producing the kind of chain reaction that can, and in fact just did, propel a team from the middle of the pack to the top of the food chain.

“We just recognized eight days ago that we controlled our own destiny,” Ritter said. “We just started a little momentum. We started to trust ourselves.”

On Thursday, Vilseck’s Jonas Matthews brashly predicted the events that would come to pass two days later, describing the growing feeling of a “championship season” for the suddenly soaring Falcons. By Saturday, the senior center and his teammates didn’t feel like underdogs, even against a team with the Royals’ pedigree.

“We were very confident,” said Matthews, calling the Royals a “really good” team he nonetheless knew the Falcons had the capacity to dethrone. “We just had to play harder and play our own game.”

But Saturday’s defeat of Ramstein was not simply a psychological undertaking or a force of collective will. The Falcons had the on-court goods to back up their growing bravado.

Vilseck had a counter for all of Ramstein’s championship-tested tactics. Bruising center Matthews brought the heft and interior touch to match Ramstein’s front line, long-limbed wing Josh Valembrun disrupted its efforts on the perimeter and point guard Cameron Gaetos capably ran the point in the face of constant Royal pressure.

Given all that, Vilseck’s win Saturday was not altogether shocking. But the severity of the beating undeniably was.

Senior center Sean Bergosh hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to cap a stunning first half and put the Falcons up 25-14 at the intermission. If the Royals were counting on a resurgent third quarter, traditionally the time when playoff-tested champions assert themselves over upset-minded contenders, they were left wanting: Vilseck only increased its lead, effectively broaching the blowout threshold on a twisting Valembrun layup and then taking a 23-point lead into the fourth quarter as the Royals managed just two points in the third.

Ramstein raged against the dying light of its dynasty, hoisting three-pointers, dialing up its defensive intensity and diving for every loose ball as the clock ticked irrevocably down. Elisha Williams swished a three-pointer from the top of the key to cut the deficit to 13 with two and a half minutes to play. But the seasoned Falcons were not inclined to choke as they made the necessary plays down the stretch to complete their conquest.

Saturday represented the end of an era for Ramstein, which will move forward without stars Jason Jones Jr. and Jerod Little and several other key players.

It did not end the way Coach Andrew O’Connor, who after Saturday’s game called the Royals the “greatest basketball program in DODEA history,” would have drawn it up. But this Royal run will be remembered as much for its triumphs as for Saturday’s unceremonious end.

“It’s a group of champions,” O’Connor said of his crestfallen team. “I love my guys, and I wouldn’t want to win with any other group or lose with any other group.”

Twitter: @broomestripes

Ryan Heckert of Vilseck attempts a three-pointer over Luis Figueroa in the boys Division I final at the DODEA-Europe basketball championships in Wiesbaden, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. Vilseck took the title with a 56-42 win.