And the beat goes on. For the fifth straight time, the Ramstein boys basketball team was crowned Division 1 champions of the DODEA Europe Basketball League by downing Kaiserslautern 48-39, completing a hectic four-day tournament in Wiesbaden. Baumholder repeated as kings in Division 3 over top seeded Anspach 70-65, and Ramstein was runner up to Stuttgart 29-24 in the Division 1 girls championship game.
Not since Heidelberg in the early 2000s has a European team been so dominant, and when the Royals go after number six next year, they will start the season with a 35-game unbeaten string at home. Those are dynasty-type numbers.
Kaiserslautern’s boys spotted the Royals a 6-0 lead, then produced a 16-3 run to take a seven point lead at the end of the quarter. With juniors Isaak Pacheco and Tre Dotson sealing the boards and junior Ervin Johnson running the offense, the Raiders got three-point field goals from four different shooters.
Kaiserslautern extended the lead to 22-9 to start the second, but Ramstein had been in this position many times before and, like so many times this season, started a run of their own. At the 4:50 mark, it was 22-12. Two minutes and 30 seconds later, with Jason Jones III working the boards and JJ Little pushing the ball upcourt, they trailed by one and took the lead on a Fraley three pointer and led 27-25 at half. Vintage Ramstein.
The Raiders’ Eric Santiago tied it early in the third, but it would be as close as the Raiders would get. Neither team was able to play uptempo and each possession was crucial. With Eaves and Jones working the boards for Ramstein and Dotson and Pacheco doing the same for Kaiserslautern, second shots were rare and both teams had to grind it out.
A Johnson steal and layup made it 38-35 Ramstein, but Little countered with a strong move to the basket and then Fraley split the Raiders zone for a layup and it was a six-point lead. An Eaves basket on an inbounds made it an eight-point lead with less than two minutes left. Johnson hit a late three for Kaiserslautern to close it out.
Any coach will say that winning one championship is difficult, but to repeat is even harder. Winning five straight is an incredible feat because the players wear a target on their backs and opponents gear up for the chance to knock them off their perch. So, for O’Connor, number five was so gratifying.
“I used to look at the five banners in Heidelberg’s gym and think that is impossible (championship 2001-2005). We did not set out to tie that record, but we just took everything day by day,” he said. “When (the streak) got to three I started thinking about it, and it was a little bit surreal that we did it. It still seems impossible. We’ve had years where we had the most talented team. But we also stole two where we shouldn’t have won but got hot at the right time.”
For the Royals, it was a sweet swan song for seniors Naser Eaves and Gabe Fraley. Eaves, the Most Valuable Player in the tournament, thrilled the crowds throughout his career with his athleticism and flash while Fraley impressed as a gritty, hard-nosed workhorse during his Ramstein tenure.
“You cannot replace those two,” O’Connor said. “They are Ramstein legends. Naser (Eaves) is the only player to win three MVP awards in Division 1 history. Gabe (Fraley) is the ultimate Royal work ethic wise, practice, work hard,” O’Connor added.
For Kaiserslautern, it was another disappointing loss to Ramstein in the playoffs. Once again they started out quickly, but let Ramstein back into the game.
“My game plan was to keep them guessing,” said Raiders Coach Corey Sullivan. “I wanted to throw something at them they’ve never seen, and keep switching defenses. The kids did their part excellently. However, it was too loud for me to keep switching defenses and so I changed up on that. That and I may have gotten too conservative when we got an early lead. And that may have hurt us. I take responsibility for that.”
After another close finish with no title to show for it, what does he tell them now?
“Tell them I love them. Tell them I’m proud of them. Tell them that they deserved it. Apologize for not being able to deliver better for them.”
In the Division 3 final, Baumholder had a score to settle with Ansbach. Earlier in the year, the Bucs lost to them by 18 points. So the incentive, plus the quest for a second straight title, was there. The Cougars started with a 12-0 run and it looked like déjà vu, but Baumholder sophomore Chandler Piggé, the Division 3 Player of the Year, who one of the tournament coaches dubbed “the Man-Child,” overwhelmed Ansbach with a 30-point, double figures rebound game, including 11 points in the crucial fourth quarter. He also got some much needed help from teammate Lawrence Huxtable, who added 17. But the victory happened because the team nailed 12 of 16 free throws and outscored Ansbach 19-13 in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. Andrew Ogden and Kevin Karmara combined for 46 for the Cougars.
“Ansbach came out, they pressed hard, they played great defense, but we weren’t worried,” Piggé said. “We then played the best defense of our lives and stuck together as a team. We are family. That’s our motto and we stuck together as family. I may be standing here getting interviewed, but it is because of them that I am here.”
Ironically, it was actually two losses that they took during the year to big school powers Kaiserslautern and Ramstein that prepared them for the title by showing them where they needed to improve.
“It definitely helped. Even though we lost we got to see things better and allow us to play together better as a team so come Euros it helped us to get through and make it back to the championship game,” said Piggé.
Coach DeWayne Piggé agreed. “It helped tremendously because that was fine tuning for our game plan for what we needed to do. It helped the team come together more, balance, and chemistry-wise we improved,” he said.
Every title is special, but it is usually the most recent that is most satisfying.
“This one was sweeter,” Coach Piggé said. “Our backs were against the wall. Not many believed in us. But we stepped up to the charge. We were down 12 but we keep fighting. We don’t give up. Just keep grinding and that’s what our boys did.”
In the girls finale, Ramstein and Stuttgart started the game like two heavyweights feeling each other out in the boxing ring. Neither team would give an inch and it was 10-10 at the half and 19 all after three.
With 2:30 left in the in the fourth, with Ramstein leading 24-23 after a three pointer by Shamilia Johnson, Stuttgart ramped up its defensive aggression up front and physicality underneath and shut down the Raiders for the duration. Led by savvy point guard Adan Mahar, Stuttgart pounded the ball in to its big people and crashed the boards, getting to the free throw line, making the last six clutch points to put a cap on the contest 29-24.
Stuttgart Coach Robin Hess said that even though it was tied at halftime, she did not go into the locker room and rant and rave. She said she knows her girls, she knows what they are capable of and she walked out and let them figure it out. It worked.
“We just decided we were not going let them beat us,” Mahar said. “We came out and played the best defense we have all year and got the victory.” Mahar’s maturity and leadership were evident. Her future includes a scholarship to Iowa State University to study in a Marine Corps program there.
Ramstein received the runner up trophy.
“We knew it was going to be a battle. Stuttgart is well coached and defensively so good,” Ramstein Coach Nathan Brewster said. “Our plan was to move the ball and attack gaps but, man, they were really good at shutting down gaps.”
Brewster said that although they did not come out victorious, it was an education of sorts.
“These girls work so hard, they overcame so much. We are the only team that beat Stuttgart all year. They learned that hard work pays off. We finished higher than our seed. (In the tournament) we beat KTown, who beat us twice. We beat Naples which was redemption for last year. And we fell just a little bit short in the championship game.” Johnson led the Royals scoring with nine, including a key three pointer down the stretch.
Kaiserslautern’s girls came home with the third place trophy after beating a strong and disciplined Naples team 28-21. The victory was special, but bittersweet, because it was the last time All Everything La’Jhanique Brown will wear the red and white. She was named to the All European team all four varsity years.
“I want to play for the championship,” she said. “But at least we got to play for third and got it. We played together well as a team considering Naples is a very good team, they are very patient and they move the ball well.”
Now that it is over, she knows what she did was special.
“It’s all going to sink in when I get to college and realize that maybe there is no more. I am going to definitely miss it,” she said. “I have so many great memories but my favorite was senior night.” It is easy to see why. She scored 28, threw in a half court shot just before half and had a full gym of Kaiserslautern fans thanking her for what she accomplished.