Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as the Far East’s fall sports season comes to an end this week:
-- Best, worst possible endings: Kubasaki will visit Kadena at 6 p.m. Saturday at Ryukyu Middle School’s Habu Field with the Far East Division I football title on the line. It will be the fourth time the teams have played this season, but interestingly, through all the times these teams have faced each other over the years, it’s the first time they’re playing for top Pacific football honors.
Given the fact that DODDS Pacific could not reschedule the Yokota at Kadena game on Oct. 5 postponed due to Tropical Storm Fitow, this was the best possible ending for the DODDS Pacific area office and its athletics coordinator Don Hobbs.
Kadena’s 49-14 win Saturday at Nile C. Kinnick assured all parties that the Panthers would remain unbeaten in absence of playing a complete season; they earned the top seed and D-I title-game host rights as a result.
By beating Seoul American 34-10, Kubasaki remained a D-I one-loss team that had beaten all its other D-I opponents, and handily at that (27-3 at Yokota in September, 38-7 over Kinnick in October).
Had Kinnick beaten Kadena or Seoul American beaten Kubasaki or both, it would have necessitated “other scenarios,” as Hobbs wrote in an e-mail to coaches and athletics directors with a vested interest t in Saturday’s outcomes. Kadena and Kubasaki winning helped all parties avert the opening of the proverbial can of worms.
It was the worst possible outcome for Yokota, the only team besides Kadena to not play a complete D-I schedule.
So now, the Panthers will be left wondering what might have been. Especially since they won their last three games against DODDS opponents.
-- What next from Dragons, Panthers?: We’ve seen three games between Kubasaki and Kadena and three rather different outcomes.
In August, Kubasaki opened the Okinawa season with a 12-6 win over Kadena in what was a defensive struggle. In September, the chains came off the offenses and the two teams combined for some 1,200 total yards in the Panthers’ 49-26 win at Kubasaki. Then last month, defense ruled the day again as Kadena blanked the Dragons 11-0, Kubasaki’s first shutout loss in three years.
So gauging what might happen Saturday could prove to be difficult. Certainly, this would make Round 4 very intriguing.
-- Shocker at Misawa: Who saw this coming?
After Zama American had thoroughly whipped Robert D. Edgren on all sides of the ball, winning 32-6 on Oct. 18 at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, the Eagles and their dynamic senior weapon Tyrone Bacalso completely turned the tables on the Trojans, 46-13 on Friday at Eagles Field.
One might have forecast a much closer game than two weeks earlier, with one side or the other winning a tight battle and Zama still holding visitors’ rights to Friday’s D-II title game at 6 p.m. at Camp Walker’s Kelly Field in Daegu.
But a 33-point Eagles’ victory? Perhaps not even Edgren coach Blaine Miller expected that, though he and the Eagles welcomed it with all the zeal of a millennial celebration.
Especially after Edgren had lost all eight of its games entering Friday’s contest, and the fact that 70 percent of the Eagles’ roster features underclassmen. But Miller preached a stay-the-course mentality, no heads down after huge losses, keep charging in like the Bacalso-sized outmatched opponent every time the bigger boy knocks him down.
The team’s motto from the start was “95 days, six seconds, all in.” Meaning the season runs 95 days in length, and each play lasts on average six seconds, with every player going all in on each.
That 95 now becomes 102, for one more week in the season.
-- Beware Edgren No. 4: Bacalso does not look very imposing, in or out of football uniform; his diminutive size might get him mistaken for a middle-school student. But especially on returns, Bacalso has posted giant-sized numbers over the last two years, to the tune of 11 return touchdowns on kicks and punts.
He ended the season against Zama the same way it began on Aug. 23 at Yokota. Then, Bacalso accounted for Edgren’s lone points with an 82-yard kick-return touchdown and finished with 248 all-purpose yards on 16 touches.
On Friday, Zama kept kicking to Bacalso and he responded in kind: 243 yards and two lengthy punt-return touchdowns (90 and 63 yards) on five returns, and 291 all-purpose yards on 25 touches. He went untouched on both returns, as did Santiago Fleming on a 92-yard interception-return touchdown.
-- Playing without Bestor: The numbers bore out how much Raymond Bestor meant to Zama football this season. The senior do-everything guy intercepted passes, threw halfback-option passes, rushed and received, a little of everything. When he went down with a left-knee injury on Fleming’s interception return and had to be hospitalized, the difference in Zama’s play was palpable; the absence of their key weapon was significant. They scored twice with him in the lineup and not without him. Bestor threw 60 yards for a touchdown to Hiro Beale and caught the game’s first touchdown pass.
-- A 1-8 team playing for a banner?: Some might question whether it’s legitimate for a team that’s lost eight of nine games to play for a Far East title at all. Well, that’s how it’s been since the inception of the Far East playoffs in 2005. A 2-5 Edgren team played at a 2-2 Osan American team for the D-II banner that year (the Cougars rallied to win 16-14), and almost every year, it’s been the same way.
Taking into account just the D-II games, Edgren was quite competitive (except for the Zama loss) against its other foes, losing at home by just one point to Daegu, then winning its D-II regular-season finale handily. Next season should offer some more solutions as Matthew C. Perry of Japan and Humphreys of Korea become varsity teams and Osan returns to the varsity fold; we’ll see more teams with winning records then. Provided the budget permits the same system to remain in place.
-- Year of the Running Back II: Not since 2001 has so much production come from the running-back position across the Pacific, and the statistics bear that out. Linemen should be patting themselves on their backs, for it’s largely due to their efforts that these backs put up such gaudy numbers.
In that 2001 season, Corey Dunlap-Buckmon, an Air Force dependent playing for Guam’s Simon Sanchez High School, set the Pacific single-season record with 2,088 yards. Darren Taylor set the Japan record with 30 touchdowns in a season and rushed for a Japan-best 1,802 yards, and lost three games due to forfeit and Sept. 11 and several halves to the mercy rule. And Seoul American’s Markel Porter set the Pacific’s record for yards-per-carry, 14.7, in a single season.
Kinnick sophomore Dre Paylor banged long and hard on Dunlap-Buckmon’s record door this season, coming just 86 yards short in his quest to break that mark. He finished with 2,002 yards on 250 carries and 11 touchdowns (none in the last four games).
And twice he breached the 300-yard mark, setting the Japan single-game record of 371 in the Red Devils’ historic 55-27 win Sept. 6 over Yokota, their first over the Panthers since 1998, and 306 in another contest. Side note: Kinnick was the only DODDS Pacific team this season that did not have a bye week in its schedule.
Paylor was not alone among productive backs in Japan. Rebuilding Yokota got 1,218 yards on 157 carries and 18 touchdowns from sophomore RB J.J. Henderson; he also caught eight passes for 146 yards in one game and had 236 return yards.
Paylor’s teammate, senior quarterback Dustin Wilson, tied the aforementioned Taylor’s Japan season touchdown record, while rushing 140 times for 840 yards and going 64-for-138 for 960 yards through the air. That’s 1,800 yards total offense.
Quarterback David Hernandez piloted what was arguably American School In Japan’s best team ever, running for 376 yards and 11 touchdowns on 45 carries and going 63-for-112 for 1,259 yards and 14 touchdowns. Prime reason why the Mustangs posted their first unbeaten season since 1981.
Playing four fewer games than Paylor and Wilson, junior Justin Sego of Kadena put up 1,167 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns on 147 carries. He authored that unforgettable performance in the 49-26 win over Kubasaki, in which he posted 422 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns.
Jarrett Mitchell of Kubasaki extended his Okinawa record single-season rushing total to 1,692, with one game to go, on an economical 141 carries, with 19 rushing touchdowns. That’s exactly 12 yards per carry.
-- Should ASIJ be eligible for D-I title?: Observers throughout Pacific Football Nation are saying that American School In Japan should be allowed to play for the D-I championship, given the Mustangs’ 8-0 record, the only unbeaten team left in the region, and the desire of guys like Hernandez to play the likes of Kadena to crown a “real” Pacific champion. It happens in all other DODDS Pacific Far East tournaments, ASIJ goes and wins championships.
So, why not football?
The Mustangs don’t play a true D-I season schedule. They would have to be receptive to traveling to or hosting Kadena, Kubasaki and Seoul American. For the moment, the school doesn’t permit the football team to make off-island trips during the season, only train journeys to Misawa once a season. While ASIJ has played a Kanto Plain schedule for 41 seasons, until they play a full D-I schedule, it will not happen. Although this would be a terrific season to see such a game.
-- Still a good season for Kinnick: They started out fast, winning their first five games for the first time since 1996, but the wheels came off after that for Kinnick, as the Red Devils lost five of their last six games to close the campaign just over .500.
Still, the Red Devils had much to celebrate. Aside from the play of Wilson and Paylor, Kinnick did win its first DODDS Japan championship in school history. Plus, there were other victories off the field, coach Dan Joley said, citing the involvement of community and parents, the team’s second successful summer-camp journey to Camp Fuji and other little accoutrements. And Paylor returns next season, as well as nine veteran linemen. Joley said he’s optimistic over the team’s future.
-- Yokota’s future: While the Panthers came alive toward season’s end, with a three-game winning streak following four straight losses for the first time since 1998, Pujol and Yokota face an uncertain future moving ahead after the first losing season on his watch and since that 1998 campaign.
Henderson and backfield mate Nick Pederson, both sophomores, are due to depart in June, the coaching staff has told Stripes. While military moves are rarely 100 percent certain and there’s a chance one or the other or both may return, losing those two would leave huge holes in the backfield and secondary.
On the bright side, freshman Clay Brownell will be back for one season at least, as will junior JaMarvin Harvey at fullback, and quarterback Marcus Henagan will return for two more seasons. And most of the line returns.