Countless hours of team and individual work paid off when Kaiserslautern High School went undefeated and won the boys’ 2017 European Soccer Championship last month. Kaiserslautern beat rival Ramstein High 3-1 in the Euros’ title game and a celebration followed which was four years in the making.
The Department of Defense Education Agency has had soccer as a competitive sport for about 30 years and this is the first time Kaiserslautern has won the coveted Euromeister plaque. Two other times the Raiders had taken third place and they lost in the finals to Ramstein High in 2014, so the 2017 season was good tonic for the red and white side.
“The atmosphere at that last game against our rivals from Ramstein and how we built up to it was something you can only dream of, with that kind of drama,” said KHS head coach Enrique John, describing a sun-soaked, late-afternoon scene at the end of May on the Vogelweh campus, when over a thousand Raider fans shook pom-poms and maintained a high enough noise level to offset the large contingent of blue-clad visitors across the way.
“I am friends with Ramstein’s coach (Dominik Ludes) and we get together in the offseason sometimes,” John said. “We saw our program grow each year but honestly, I had a meeting with the players before this season began and told them I had the intent of not losing one single game. This is not to sound arrogant because you show character, you go all out and play hard and if you lose you lose. Our players stood up to the challenge and we won the whole thing.”
Senior Alexander Dexter was named Euros’ most valuable player to cap a splendid senior year and career. Dexter scored eight goals during a torrid two-game stretch with Ansbach and Lakenheath, but more important to him was being able, at the end, to reverse the negativity of losing to Ramstein in the title game of his freshman season. Workouts with coaches are restricted during the offseason so Raiders players routinely gathered together and worked out with drills and scrimmages during the summer and leading up to each spring.
“Every year we saw our chances getting better and better because we were improving so much,” Dexter said. “We’d never lost a lot of games and we knew we had a really experienced back line returning this year. Some of us had played on German teams so we had all this extra experience and know-how.”
Kaiserslautern beat Vilseck, Vicenza, Lakenheath, Ramstein twice, and SHAPE in Euro play. Ramstein lost three times to KHS in 2017 but actually scored first in the title match, when freshman Anthony Villella raced downfield and connected on a shot. It took less than two minutes, though, for the Raiders to tie things and take the lead enroute to victory.
“It was a wakeup call because we hadn’t allowed a goal by anyone else during the whole tournament,” senior defender Jonathan Millet said. The Raiders got a score from senior Thomas Robinson, plus two more from 11th-graders Pablo Zorrilla and Tyler Jankowski to help blunt any serious push thereafter from the Royals.
During the remarkable season, Kaiserslautern had Dexter with 21 goals and Austin James scored 20 more to lead an eight-man senior class that helped carry the Raiders to the Division I championship among the largest military base schools in Europe. Despite graduating several players, a blueprint is in place to continue soccer success in years to come. With an 18-man roster, everyone got valuable playing time during the 2017 season and could take on a larger role next year.
“This might make people who move here from the States or from other DODEA school areas think hard about where they want to go to school,” said center back Robinson. “Everyone, from this area anyway, has pretty much known that Ramstein wins a lot of titles in a lot of sports. Well, we showed right here that we have a top program. Winning championships is the way to prove where you stand and sports at our school can compete, too.”
The 2017 European fussball tournament was similar to the regular season in as much as the Raiders were pretty much untested on any part of the field. Kaiserslautern went undefeated (13-0) and allowed only six goals the entire campaign as opponents found it difficult to advance past the various stages of defense in front of Raider goalkeeper Enrico Ard. Freshman starters Conner Mackie and Philipp Rimmler were part of a younger brigade that might help the program sustain itself in coming seasons.
“We had a system-type of game that we played where we ran set plays and it was developed over the several years we played together,” senior defensive midfielder James said. “We didn’t want to just run up and down the field this year… we wanted to control things with technical play. We ran plays on offense but we moved to spots and shut down what other teams were trying to do with the ball. Enrico is a great goalkeeper for us and he’s very quick to react, but he would tell you that we didn’t let a lot of teams even get many shots toward our net.”
Among the seniors, Dexter, Robinson, Jonathan Millet, and the multi-faceted James all plan to play soccer in the United States in their freshmen year of college, although Millet said he might take some time off.
“Millet can play somewhere … they all can, I think, because they have been part of this progression with our program and they all committed to work hard,” said KHS coach John, a former Army field artillery soldier in Bamberg, Germany, who is completing his 12th year with DODEA. John had previously coached at schools in Heidelberg and Mannheim, as well as leading teams on the youth and adult level outside of the education realm.
“Coach John is the reason we won the championship and we probably would not have done this without him leading us,” James said. “He is able to be hard on us but he does it fairly. He’s motivated us every season to get better. We weren’t satisfied with how the other seasons ended up.”
The Raiders also got a big push from assistant coach Dominic Stumpf, a master tactician who played and worked within the professional Bundesliga soccer ranks here in Deutschland. John said his assistant deserves as much credit for the top prize as anyone, labeling Stumpf as “detailed oriented and with a promising future” as a chef trainer because he understands what it takes to work with student-athletes.
With seniors having peaked in their abilities it was apparent to KHS coaches that the road was clear for a run to the top of the standings. In other seasons, with other intangibles surrounding any given roster, there will be greater challenges standing in the way of the championship.
“I tell players to keep both feet on the ground and to set goals, but to approach every game situation by concentrating on that one opponent,” John said. “If we have to play Wiesbaden this week and Ramstein next, then we need to think only about Wiesbaden. We play opponents from lower divisions all the time and a good example was when we played a Division III team, Ansbach, last year and we ended up in a tie game. Anything can happen if you aren’t prepared or you aren’t focused on what the challenge is for that day.”