Things learned, observed in Far East high school basketball tournament week

Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as Ornauer gives thanks for reaching the back end of Far East tournament week, and lived to tell the tale:

To paraphrase the chorus of a song performed by a Montgomery, Ala., bar band from the 1970s, Rabbit Creek:

“Fifty years of trying, 50 years of pain. Fifty years of laughter, but none of them in vain.”

How special, then, was it that Zama American’s boys basketball team could end a Far East Tournament title drought that spanned 1963 to the present?

All the close calls. Reaching the Far East Division I Final Four in 1985 at Kubasaki with Kevin Maxwell and Mark Catan. The Demetrius Dixon team of 1993-94 that nearly ran the Kanto Plain table, but came up short (fifth) at the D-I tournament at Yokota. And the Wilberto Badillo-Carlos Walter team of 2007 that began the season 34-0, won its first DODDS Japan title in school history and first Kanto Plain title since sharing the 1994 crown with Christian Academy Japan, only to fade in the D-I semifinals and eventually taking fourth.

All of those memories of heartbreak and frustration gave way to unbridled joy, happiness and celebration at Camp Zama’s Yano Fitness & Sports Center last Wednesday, when Andrae Adams, RayVaughn King, David Coleman, Yoshinobu Nicolas and the Trojans outlasted a stubborn, out-of-character slowdown St. Paul Christian team from Guam 28-25 in one of the lowest-scoring Far East championship games in history.

It’s been that way at Zama all school year. There’s a spring in people’s steps. More people in those halls, administration, teachers, students, are smiling more. Five Far East tournament titles will do that. Winning is the ultimate tonic: When a school’s teams win state championship banners, people tend to be peacock-proud of those achievements. “I go to school at Zama” is a point of pride in 2012-13.

Ever since Bruce Derr, the former DODDS Japan district superintendent, was called out of retirement to become the principal last May at a school where he coached volleyball and wrestling in the 1970s and ’80s, the school has undergone a major transformation. And winning Far East championships is a major part of that transformation.

First, girls tennis and football in November. Then sweeping both wrestling tournament banners last week at Yokosuka. But the biggest coup, undoubtedly, will be putting year after year of wondering whether this will be the year for boys basketball behind Trojan Nation.

For Parish and Veronica Jones, a second Far East tournament title to follow the one last May by Brooklinn McElhinney and the Trojans girls softball team.

For Sean Wise, son of the high school’s nurse, equally gratifying to see it finally happen. He was part of that 2006-07 team that began the season with such promise, only to have it fall apart. Eternally chipper, you know Wise was smiling like a noon-day sun at the final buzzer.

For Zama American High School, a real feather in its black, maroon and white cap. Fight on, Trojan Nation! A community is proud of you!
Zama wasn’t the only school celebrating the end of a lengthy tournament title drought – all four winners of Far East basketball tournament championships had not won their respective crowns in at least 12 years.

American School In Japan boys, with tournament Most Valuable Player Henry Wallrapp, beat Father Duenas Memorial of Guam 61-49 last Thursday at Kubasaki, the Mustangs’ first championship since Henrik Gistren’s clutch foul shots helped ASIJ pull away from Yokota for a 53-48 overtime victory in 1983 at Yokota Air Base’s main fitness center.

Then there were Hanna Kim, Karen Yates, Nicole Turner and the Morrison Academy Mustangs, the pride of Taichung, Taiwan, who dispatched a much improved E.J. King girls squad 67-50 for the D-II championship, the first won by the Mustangs since the days of the school’s all-time leading scorer, Robin Siirila, in 2000 at Willie R. Brown II’s spotless fitness & sports center at Camp Hialeah in Pusan, South Korea.

And the Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils’ answer to the Big Three, point guard Alyshia Allison, shooting guard De’Asia Brown and ferocious post player Mashiya McKinney, ended a drought spanning back to 2001. But the Red Devils needed a two-game final to do it, rebounding from a 57-53 overtime loss to ASIJ to down the Mustangs 45-32 in the deciding second game. In so doing, McKinney enjoyed a revenge moment of sorts, for her girls volleyball’s defeat against ASIJ in the Far East D-I Tournament in November on Guam.
Much of the talk following that girls D-I title matchup was fatigue factor, and whether ASIJ’s girls were simply spent after winning two overtime battles just to force that second, deciding championship game. Worse, the injury bug struck when McKinney and ASIJ’s two-time volleyball MVP Liz Thornton’s heads collided under the basket late in the first half, with Thornton having to leave with a concussion. Then, Joey Yamada fouled out, leaving ASIJ without two of its key weapons.

Should the tournament have been conducted as a true double-elimination with a second, deciding final game to be played a half-hour after the first, observers asked? Or should it have featured a winner-take-all final game, as was the case with the DODDS Japan tournament two weeks earlier at Misawa Air Base?

DODDS-Pacific Far East athletics coordinator Don Hobbs, tournament organizers said, insisted that it be the former, not wanting a repeat of the events following that DODDS Japan tournament, when Zama, vanquished by host Robert D. Edgren, asked when the second “if” game was scheduled. Apprised that there would not be one, Jones and Jones protested, but to no avail. Hobbs wanted no part of a similar scenario, and one can’t blame him for that.

Still, the use of true double-elimination conjured up memories of the 2003 Far East Boys D-I Tournament, in which Kubasaki played something like five games in a 24-hour period and had nothing left in the tank when the Dragons lost the final in one game at Seoul American. It was said then that D-I tournaments would feature single-elimination brackets, but that was before pool play was taken out of the equation and double-elimination replaced it for the 2013 tournaments.

No matter which way you go, true double or winner-take-all, I don’t think every coach will  be entirely happy.
But to address that fatigue factor, clearly delineate the number of games teams will get at Far East tournaments, eliminate seeding debate, to make the Far East tournament experience more like DODDS Europe and perhaps get the YIS-Seouls, Faiths and Morrisons to hedge their bets and not leave Far East to form that conference, might I suggest the following:

-- Reinstate pool play for Far East, just as they do in Europe. Ensure that even numbers of teams are invited to the D-I and D-II tournaments and have just two pools of four, five, six, seven or eight teams each.

-- Tournaments with 14 teams or more play a single round-robin against all in their pools. Teams would play six games in a seven-team pool, seven games in an eight-team pool. For tournaments with 12 or fewer, teams would play all opponents in their pools PLUS one or two teams in the other pool, to be selected at random.

-- The top finishers in each pool would then play for the title, the next two for third place, the next two for fifth, etc.

-- Geographically separate common opponents in the respective pools, putting Yokota and Kinnick and Kadena and Kubasaki in separate D-I pools, and Osan American and Daegu High and E.J. King and Matthew C. Perry in separate D-II pools.

That eliminates all the guesswork, debate and negotiating needed to seed into a double-elimination tournament. It makes every game meaningful, and doesn’t eliminate teams from title contention on the first day, as happened in all four tournaments last week.

All of this said, the double-elimination formatting was done for the most part very well by tournament organizers (excepting giving the Nos. 7 and 8 teams in the Girls D-II tournament first-round byes, which to me still flies in the face of reason, though all 10 coaches voted in favor of that non-traditional format).

The No. 2 seed won the Boys D-I and Girls D-II, the No. 4 seed the Boys D-II and the No. 3 seed the Girls D-I . That’s not a bad batting average. Credit the organizers for doing a creditable job, given the lack of common opponents and untold amount of input from coaches and pure rough-and-ready reckoning and  guesswork needed. Even NCAA tournament organizers, with full bodies of work available from each team from all forms of media, swing and miss quite often.
It could be argued, whether fairly or unfairly, that Daegu High’s teams were unwarrantedly seeded No. 1 in their respective tournaments, given the fact that each crashed out in two games and were left to play for lower placement the rest of the way.

But was the seeding to blame for the Warriors’ performance? Look at how quickly the Warriors boys rebounded from the first-day doldrums and played hard the rest of the way, beating Osan 83-68 and E.J. King 65-54 for ninth place. A strong finish after a terrible start. And Daegu’s girls responded by routing M.C. Perry 55-27, finishing only seventh, but finishing strong.

Could it be, as the parent of one Daegu player suggested in an e-mail to me, the timing of the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference Five-Cities Division Tournament had something to do with it? I think the parent has a good point.

The Warriors girls traveled back and forth from Camp Walker to the KAIAC host Taejon Christian International School both days of the tournament, played three games in two days, went home and in less than eight hours had to board a bus at 5 a.m. Sunday for Kimhae International Airport for a flight to Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, then to Misawa Airport – 12 hours in the air including layovers. They arrived at Misawa Air Base at 8 p.m., then had to play the first game Monday. I think I’d be a bit on the exhausted side, too.

“Last year, we had a week to rest and prepare, but this year, nothing but get on a bus and a plane,” the parent wrote.

Well, just today, I received an e-mail from Daegu High’s athletics director Ken Walter, stating that next year’s KAIAC Blue Division Tournament will occur a week earlier. We’ll see what kind of difference it makes next year.
Following the Girls D-I tournament, one observer and I engaged in a rather lively debate over supper at the Yokota Enlisted Club about the merits of MVPs selected from non-championship teams. His position was the MVP should be that player who led his/her team to the title; mine was by strict definition, player most valuable to his/her team.

I see his point, and have long wondered, for example, how the Baseball Writers Association of America could have seen their way clear to voting Andre “Hawk” Dawson the 1987 National League MVP for a last-place Chicago Cubs team.

Then again, I’ve also seen many a Far East tournament MVP come from a non-championship team. Melissa Calkins of Guam’s Trinity Christian School in 1994 was the Girls D-II MVP from a fifth-place team. Eight years later, Brieanna Carroll of seventh-place Pusan American was named MVP.

I have no problem with either selection, having seen each tournament and knowing what those two players produced and how much they meant to each of their team’s fortunes.

So I have no problem with Sheik Carino of St. Paul’s boys, Tara Long of E.J. King’s girls and Bessie Noll of ASIJ’s girls getting the MVP nods. Having seen all three play, I say they each deserve it.

Noll was the fuel that made the Mustangs’ girls engine run, a purely athletic guard who could play any position and play it well. Simply a pure athlete, whose best sport – believe it or not – is baseball. She hopes to play women’s softball at the collegiate level, and felt that playing baseball would best resemble the speed of the game, since ASIJ doesn’t have a girls high school softball team.

Long was clearly the “it” player of the Girls D-II tournament. Though it was pretty clear the other nine teams in the tournament were playing for second place behind Morrison, it was Long and the Cobras who gave the Mustangs the toughest time, relatively speaking; Morrison beat its other three foes by an average of 28 points, but Long’s play and that of teammates Deb Avalos, Yasmine Weddle, Rachel Fraser and others helped the Cobras stay within an average of 18 points of the Mustangs.

And Carino! Wow! Talk about a two-legged human dynamo. Guy can shoot, he can run like a scared jackrabbit, and plays defense along with the rest of the Warriors like a man possessed.

Yes, non-championship team tournament MVPs need their love, too.
A fond farewell to Dan Robinson, who steps down from the helm of a Morrison Academy team that first began attending Far East tournaments in 1995, the Steven Titus team, and came away with six D-II Tournament titles, including four consecutive from 2009-12. Robinson and the Mustangs came up short in their bid to match Faith Academy’s girls Drive for Five of the late 1990s-2000, but he did watch his son Grant average 28.4 points per game, shoot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from three-point range. The last three games saw him average 33 points, 65 percent from the field and 57 percent from three-point land, despite defenses keying on him with box-and-one zones.
A fond farewell to St. Paul coaches Paul Pineda and Stu Schaefer, who plan to step aside after this season. The Warriors have two D-II titles to their credit.
A fond farewell to Morrison, Yongsan International-Seoul and perhaps Faith Academy as well, from Far East tournament participation. With Far East tournaments trimmed by at least a day each, and basketball cut by two days each, the three schools plan to join a 12-school international Christian conference next school year, with their own tournament system that one athletics director says will mirror the old Far East tournament experience, with pool play and elimination brackets.

If they do leave, that will end 20 years of Far East association with the old International Christian School of Seoul, 18 years with Morrison and 41 years of welcoming Faith Academy, and its legendary boys coach Tine Hardeman, to Far East.

One of the enriching aspects of Far East tournaments is the chance to compare notes on everything from hoops to living between DODDS and non-DODDS players and coaches. Team Military (DODDS-Pacific) meets Team Missionary (Faith, YIS-Seoul, Morrison, Christian Academy Japan) meets Team Metropolitan (ASIJ, Hong Kong International School) meets Team Micronesia (take your pick of any Guam teams) and so many others. Facebook friending usually spikes after such tournaments. A shame to see them go. You’ve added so much to the experience. Bonne chance in the new conference.


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Ornauer on AFN


Stars and Stripes reporter Dave Ornauer talks about the Pacific sports scene on AFN Radio. (Click on right arrow to play file.)


Sept 28:Dave Ornauer is back with the latest on the Pacific sports scene.

May 22:Yokota has dominated in first year at D-II spring championsihps.

May 8: Dave Ornauer highlights a few athletes who are participating in the Kanto Plains track and field finals Saturday.