Right in step with the snowy weather which hit England and Central Europe this week is this weekend’s debut of the high schools’ winter sports seasons.

Basketball led the way with 24 games scheduled too late last night to make this edition of Stars and Stripes, but the season begins in earnest today with 24 more basketball games, five wrestling tournaments and two rifle matches on the agenda. A full slate also is scheduled for next weekend before the fledgling season plummets into the holiday break. Play is to resume Jan. 7-8, leading to the European finales in the three winter sports – the marksmanship championships Jan. 29 at a site yet to be decided, the European wrestling championships in Wiesbaden on Feb. 16-17, and DODDS-Europe’s biggest indoor event, the Division I, II, and III basketball tournaments for boys and girls, Feb. 23-26 in Mannheim.

It’s far too early to decide what’s likely to happen at those championships, but here are some sport-by-sport themes at the start of the school year’s longest season:

BasketballIn boys’ hoops, the dominant concept is “three-peat.” Both D-I champ Ramstein and D-II king Aviano are two-time defending champs and would like nothing better than to keep the ball rolling. All-Europe senior guard Thomas Amrine returns for Ramstein, but, like Aviano, which graduated All-Europeans Jamal Tuck and Sean Outing last June, the Royals also will have to find successors to two graduated All-Europeans – Dillon Wadsack and Michael Wallace.

Ramstein coach Andy O’Connor expects tough competition from Heidelberg, led by senior All-Europe guard Eugene Jones and coached by Ron Merriwether, who won European titles as a player and coach at Giessen. O’Connor also expects neighborhood rival Kaiserslautern, which returns rebounding machine Bernard Burwell, to be a major challenge.

“Three” enters into the D-III boys’ picture, too. Rota dethroned 2009 champ Sigonella in last February’s title game, and the two could well play for the D-III crown for the third straight season, given that each team returns gifted All-Europeans – Tre’Von Owens of Rota and Larry Stevenson of Sigonella.

A repeat is conceivable for girls’ D-I champion Wiesbaden, which welcomes back All-Europeans LeAndra and LeAmber Thomas, but D-II champ Bamberg and D-III titlist Brussels both will have to find replacements for first-team All-Europe pivots – tourney MVP Racquel Davis of Bamberg and female athlete of the year Kathleen Anderson of Brussels.

WrestlingBlack Forest Academy joins the mat wars for the first time, but this sport is all about ongoing programs. Defending D-I champ Patch opens today with a visit to tough-nut Vilseck, while 2010 runner-up Lakenheath, led by returning champion Adam Carroll, hosts the U.K.- and Belgium-based schools on opening day.

New Baumholder coach Eric Majorwicz expects his graduation-depleted D-II champion Bucs, led by European champ Adrian Julien and placers Prince Owusu and Robert West, to be challenged by perennial powers AFNORTH, Bitburg and Naples, 40 wrestlers strong, for the D-II crown.

Sigonella won D-III last season and the Jaguars, who return European runner-up Marco Montero, figure to be the team to beat again. They’ll begin finding out where they stand today, when all five Italy-based wrestling schools converge at Vicenza.

Marksmanship“Three-peat” is the operative word in this sport, too, where Patch will be seeking a third straight European title in precision air-rifle competition.

If the Panthers make it three in a row, experience will be the difference, according to Coach Jack Wayne, who fields three veterans of the Army JROTC national championships.

Hohenfels coach Bruce Andrews also suits up a national JROTC performer in Erin Redden and expects once again to contend.

Round 1 begins today at Hohenfels and Mannheim.

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