Every so often, student-athletes turn up at schools, whom fate made unstoppable and who in turn tell their respective teams to hop on their backs, for they’re off on a journey that will take them to Far East tournament title country.
Last fall, that was senior Andre Encarnacion of Zama American football and Liz Thornton of American School In Japan volleyball, vital cogs in two Far East champion teams, who’ve earned Stars and Stripes Pacific high school fall sports Athlete of the Quarter honors as a result.
Often dragging several players hanging onto his belt with him for big gains, Encarnacion racked up a division-leading 1,349 yards and scored a Pacific-high 19 touchdowns, his second straight year leading the Far East.
Zama went 6-5 overall, with all five losses coming against Division I-equivalent opponents. Against Division II, the Trojans went 5-0 and outscored its opponents 179-77, including three wins against Division II title-game foe Robert D. Edgren by a combined 115-63. They beat the Eagles 35-20 in the title game at Zama on Nov. 10, Zama’s second D-II title in the last four seasons.
“It’s amazing how he carries five guys with him,” coach Steven Merrell said of a back who departs Zama as its career rushing leader with 2,732 yards and 37 touchdowns on 380 carries over parts of three varsity seasons. “You shake your head sometimes. You can’t believe it.”
Thornton is the third in a line of sisters who’ve won Far East D-I Girls Volleyball Tournament titles and MVP awards, became the first of the three to do it twice, in November at Naval Base Guam against the Mustangs’ chief rivals the past three years, Nile C. Kinnick. Catherine was the first sister to do it in 2006 and Gwen followed in 2008.
Thornton averaged 15.3 spike kills and 4.4 block points per match as the Mustangs nearly went unbeaten this past season, teaming with fellow All-Far East middle blocker Mia Weinland (12 kills, 3.2 blocks), a sophomore who will return next season, and senior setter Baileigh Gibson (24 assists).
The only blemish on their 21-1 overall record, including their first outright Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools title since 2008 (Kinnick won or shared the next three), was a straight-set loss to Kinnick on Day 2 of Far East. The rest of the way, they outscored their foes by 64 points, losing just one set. And the title match, a 25-17, 21-25, 25-20, 25-20 win over Kinnick, came after an errant ball struck coach Gail Lanier in the eye during warmups (more on that below).
Congratulations to the two winners.
The rest of the fall-season Stripes sports awards:
-- COACH OF THE QUARTER: The job that Tom McKinney did, not just build a team that swept every conceivable honor in Far East cross country but who did it while flying under the radar, was simply remarkable.
-- TEAM OF THE QUARTER: Arguably the finest championship team Yokota has ever put together, featuring their Super Five linemen, Victor Madaris, Max Lester, Dylan Kessler, Jake Jackson and Jesse Hogan plowing the road for the Killer B’s backfield, Raymond “Ice Man” Butler, Morgan Breazell, Donavan Ball and Stanley Speed. The Panthers went 11-0, outscored opponents 470-105 and beat Kubasaki for the second straight year in the D-I title game 55-8 on Nov. 17 at Yokota.
-- PROGRAM OF THE QUARTER: Far East tournament championship performances in D-I girls volleyball and D-I tennis, along with the Asia-Pacific Invitational cross-country meet team title and a solid, respectable 5-3 football season. That’s the American School In Japan.
-- MOST IMPROVED TEAM: Slowly rising on the Far East volleyball radar is Kubasaki. Keila Welky, Kelsey Rogers, Stephanie Dowse and the Dragons ran the table in the Okinawa Activities Council regular season, then took fifth at the Far East D-I Tournament, their best finish since taking fourth in 2005.
-- FOOTBALL PLAYERS OF THE QUARTER: The above-mentioned Encarnacion and the Panthers’ collective. ’Nuff said.
-- CROSS-COUNTRY RUNNERS OF THE QUARTER: Kadena’s Andrew Kilkenny and Ana Hernandez sparkled in the Far East D-I 3.1-mile individual race, while Henry Valentine-Ramsden of Seoul Foreign and Taylor Fell of St. John’s (Guam) did likewise in the API. Best times of the season were recorded by Kubasaki’s Erik Armes (16:31 on Oct. 17) and Carydaliz Fontanez of Kinnick (19:19 on Sept. 22).
-- VOLLEYBALL PLAYERS OF THE QUARTER: The aforementioned Weinland, Gibson and Thornton, and Karen Yates, who powered Morrison Academy to a repeat of its 2011 Far East D-II Tournament title and the Mustangs’ fourth in 11 years.
-- TENNIS PLAYERS OF THE QUARTER: Aside from ASIJ’s Kentaro Hayashi and Guam High’s Chloe Gadsden, Far East singles gold medalists, Gadsden for the second straight year, there were Jeffrey and Jae-hyun Kim of Seoul Foreign. The Crusaders’ junior pair ran the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference regular-season and tournament table as well as third straight Asia-Pacific Activities Conference tournament titles. And they’re back for one more season.
-- BEST NEW EVENT: The “everybody plays everybody” regular-season Far East football format has been criticized as being a waste of money and favoring the gridiron at the expense of other sports. Not only did it beget the most exciting season in Pacific history, with every game every week meaning something … it finally put high school football on a PAR with all other fall season sports, in that it gave every team in every area a full regular-season schedule of at least seven games, some playing as many as 11, plus a Far East championship game in each division. Just.like.every.other.fall.sport.
-- GAME OF THE QUARTER: That’s twice in the 2012 calendar year that I’ve had my heart in my throat every second of a very, very exciting game. Zama’s 40-26 victory Oct. 5 at Robert D. Edgren could not have been more see-saw, unpredictable and fun. Hundreds of Misawans decked out in green and gold witnessed the pyrotechnics, and even AFN’s The Source 1575-AM radio was on hand to broadcast the event. The other time I was that close to an apoplexy on the field last year was that memorable 1-0 Kinnick victory over ASIJ in girls soccer.
-- BEST SUBSTITUTION: Not sure when the last time was that Tim Thornton coached a game, much less a sport during a complete season, since he left Canadian Academy for ASIJ in the 1990s. But when Lanier was struck in the eye during pre-match in the Far East D-I final, the father of MVP Liz Thornton stepped in and coached the team to its four-set victory over Kinnick. I would surmise that Thornton, Gibson and Weinland and the rest of the Mustangs knew what they had to do, but the elder Thornton was there when needed.