Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League puts the lid on its 13th season with yet another close, exciting Torii Bowl:
Some commanding officers, chiefs and first sergeants probably will do a slow burn when they find that a handful of airmen belonging to the Yokota Warriors football team aren’t back for duty come Monday, thanks to Tropical Storm Haikui, which grounded their return flight from Okinawa on Sunday.
As Barbara Billingsley would have said in the movie Airplane: “Hey, cut ’em some slack, Jack!” For it’s what the Warriors will bring back with them from Okinawa, of which all those collar brass and top threes should be immensely proud.
How about sinking your teeth into Torii Bowl title No. 2 in Warriors history? That, thanks to special-teams sparkle, three huge plays which powered Yokota to a 20-12 triumph over defending champion Foster in the 11th installment of the USFJ-AFL’s championship game (2001 and ’03 were canceled due to 9/11 and duty commitments).
That’s the second Torii Bowl victory in three years for Yokota, after a USFJ title drought that spanned back to their glorious 1994 season, when the then-Raiders won both the military league and the Japan Private Football Federation title (their opponent? The Kyoto Ringostarrs. You can’t make up stuff like that).
And it’s the second straight time a road team emerged victorious in the Torii Bowl. Thought to be nigh onto impossible, given the logistical headaches of transporting North Division champion south and South Division champion north. Ensure you have enough people taking leave or on permissive TDY orders or somehow, by hook or crook, getting enough off-time to make the journey. Ensure the team can arrange space-available transportation on Air Mobility Command or Navy Air Logistics Office flights, or shell out enough shekels for a seat aboard a Japan Air Lines or All-Nippon Airways flight.
Well, the Warriors … did … it. Just as Foster did in its comeback victory last season at Misawa, the Bulldogs’ second Torii Bowl title. This time, Foster came up just short in its bid for a title hat trick, which would have put them second behind Yokosuka (six) for most USFJ-AFL championships. Foster remains tied with Misawa and Yokota with two each.
How often did we hear Dandy Don Meredith on Monday Night Football say again and again: “Mistakes will kill you.” And on special teams, they were the bane of Foster’s existence. Yokota scored twice on botched punt snaps and parlayed a 78-yard Joe Stevens kick return to open the second half into a third TD.
-- Game’s first series, fourth down, Foster at its own 34. Ball snapped over punter’s head into end zone. Garrett Sokolowski falls on it. Stefan Welch kicks extra point. 7-0 Yokota.
-- Following Stevens’ kick return, Darone Frierson runs 1-yard quarterback sneak for touchdown that makes it 13-0.
-- After Foster rallied to cut the gap to 1 point, bad punt snap strikes again, this time Mark Rocamontes covering the loose ball in the end zone. Welch’s placement puts the final nail in Foster’s coffin.
That’s how you win games even when you’re outgained 213-139 on offense, and only gain 7 of those yards in the air. When opposing team gives you opportunity, you do what any good team is supposed to do and take advantage of each chance.
Foster did pretty much the same thing after Frierson’s score early in the second half. Spotting weaknesses in Yokota’s defensive outside containment, the Bulldogs answered back, with newcomer Maurice Jones running 17 yards for a touchdown.
On Yokota’s next possession, third play, Warriors running back Anthony McNeill, Yokota High School’s career rushing leader, fumbled the ball, giving the Bulldogs solid position at the Yokota 30. Jones rushed four times for 35 yards (Foster was penalized for delay of game) and suddenly, the Bulldogs were back within a point and had turned the game into a nailbiter.
That’s when McNeill took things into his own hands. Wanting a chance to redeem himself for his miscue, he made one of the game’s most underrated plays, rushing 42 yards for a first down. Although Yokota didn’t score on the drive, it tilted the battle of field position back in Warriors favor, and took the pressure off them.
Another of the game’s more underrated plays followed. After Foster got the ball back, Raymond McGee got one of Yokota’s two sacks (Sokolowski had the other, putting the ball at the Bulldogs 14. The next play was the second botched snap and Yokota’s last score of the contest.
For Rocamontes, it was his second game-changing play in a span of two games. It was his interception-return touchdown that signaled the beginning of the end for Misawa in last month’s North championship game.
Perhaps most underrated was how Welch’s right leg meant so much in terms of the battle of field position. Having an accomplished kicker – Welch played soccer and football for Yokota High alongside McNeill in the mid-2000s – can mean the difference between forcing the opponent to start their drives around midfield or deep in their territory.
Having a strong wind at their backs in the first quarter didn’t hurt the Warriors either.
Foster started three of its first-half possessions at its own 20, and three second-half possessions inside its 35. Although Yokota only scored once in the first quarter, the Warriors clearly won the battle of field position, forcing three Foster punts at the Bulldogs 34 or closer.
Charles Taggart could’ve/would’ve/should’ve been one of the wearers of that really outstanding championship ring that Foster coach Gerald Sharber had crafted after last year’s Torii Bowl. But Taggart transferred from Okinawa to U.S. Embassy duty in Tokyo just one week before the Torii Bowl and he missed out.
Not this time. Battling traffic back and forth from the Embassy Compound to Yokota’s Bonk Field for practice, traveling at least an hour each way, Taggart earned his place on the Warriors roster and a sense of joy for being on the field to help Yokota beat his old team. “I was glad I was able to be here this year,” he said.
And for McNeill, his own redemption came with that Torii Bowl victory. Despite his stellar individual numbers while wearing jersey No. 42 for Yokota High, he never won a Far East Division I football title. He gained 84 yards in Saturday’s contest while wearing jersey No. 25 for the Warriors. “Happy, super happy,” he said.