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Things learned, observed on Day 2 of 7th New Year Classic

Musings, mutterings and the occasional schmahts as Ornauer marvels over the yakisoba served by Yokota’s Shima snack shack:

Pool play in the 7th New Year Classic high school boys basketball tournament wrapped up just past noon Friday with Yokota and Kadena grabbing the top seeds entering the single-elimination playoffs.

The format of the tournament resonates with most all of the coaches of the eight teams, whose reaction to the changes in next month’s Far East Divisions I and II Tournaments was largely negative, particularly the elimination of pool play and turning to strictly double-elimination tournament formats.

“DODDS did not think this through,” said Yokota coach Paul Ettl, one of the more vocal opponents of the changes, which were announced last month after the DODDS Pacific athletics directors video teleconference in late November.

DODDS Pacific’s Far East athletics coordinator Don Hobbs, reached by phone, had no comment other than to refer to Ettl’s statement (and comments further down) as “nonsense.”

DODDS Pacific has cut D-I and D-II tournaments by two days each, eliminating pool play as a method of determining seeding for tournament playoffs that follow, and also cut the number of participants per team from 10 students to nine.

The adjustments were made, Hobbs and DODDS Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff said:

  • to save on costs ranging from airline fares to referees to ground transportation to billeting, paying overtime for on-site maintainers and bus drivers and other costs;
  • to bring Far East tournaments more in line with the length of tournaments staged by DODDS Europe, and
  • to hold down time missed out of the classroom by student athletes.

New Year Classic coaches to a man said they found fault with at least one aspect of the changes or another. Most D-I coaches said they could still play the same amount of games in four days instead of the customary six as it has been since the 1980s.

Coach Jon Fick of two-time defending Far East Boys D-I champion Kubasaki said it’s possible to play two games on the first, third and fourth days of the tournament and one on the second, instead of spreading it out over six.

“We’re playing six games in three days here,” Fick said. “At Far East, if you go to the semifinals, you’re playing seven games in four days. I don’t understand why we have to do it this way.”

By dropping pool play and going double-elimination, the tournaments lose 12 games, from 56 to 44, which would save $3,000 officiating costs.

“Most coaches would be cool with having just two referees until the quarterfinals,” Fick said. “Or you could raise the entry fee. There are other ways to be creative.”

The $3,000 extra cost to fund officials for a full pool-play and single-elimination tournament is “money well spent,” Ettl said. “The biggest savings would be airline tickets. You go from 10 players to nine, that saves thousands of dollars. Let the kids have the full tournament experience.”

Among other ways to trim costs would be to eliminate the daily stipend that coaches receive for travel, which is accomplished via TDY orders. “I bet if you took away coaches’ per diem, they wouldn’t complain,” said former two-time Far East champion coach Robert Bliss of Kadena.

Trimming from 10 bodies to nine increases the risk of being left short-handed, Christian Academy Japan’s longtime athletics director Craig Eby said. “If you have two injuries and a foulout, you’re in a tight situation,” he said.

How the teams in each tournament will be seeded has yet to be determined. In an interview last month with Stripes, Hobbs said DODDS would find a way to seed the team in as equitable a manner as possible.

Coaches disputed that contention. “They’re setting themselves up for controversy,” Ettl said.

“There’s no realistic way to seed the teams,” Fick said, adding that there’s no way to gauge how well teams that haven’t seen each other play would do on the Far East stage. “Seoul American has no common opponents. Then there are the Guam teams. How would you work them in?” Fick said.

Pool play, Ettl said, “would solve that. Eliminate that possibility by still doing pool play.”

With the number of games dwindling, “my greatest fear is that international-school teams may say it’s not worth it,” Fick said, particularly at the D-II level where teams might play just three games in three days. “They want the games. If that changes and international schools drop, then Far Easts will be like the New Year Classic in February.”

Indeed, a handful of international schools that are longtime Far East tournament participants, including Faith Academy of the Philippines, Yongsan International-Seoul and Morrison Academy of Taiwan, have discussed joining several other Christian international schools to form their own conference. One of those schools’ ADs suggested that it’s “more than just talk.”

Eby says CAJ is not one of those schools considering leaving Far East. “I know there are some alternatives,” said Eby, who has been at CAJ since 1975 and remembers when Far East tournaments were strictly single-elimination, four games in five days. “I appreciate that they’re not cutting international schools out of Far East.”

Ettl said DODDS needs to listen to those who have different ideas instead of settling hard-and-fast on the solutions announced in December. “Once they made their decision, they said that’s it, they’re going to stick to their guns and not listen to any alternatives,” Ettl said. “If my opinion offends some people, then so be it.”

Others were more charitable in their final assessment. “I’m sure that Mr. Hobbs has looked at every option,” Nile C. Kinnick coach Robert Stovall said. “But in the long run, dropping pool play hurts the kids.”

***

In defense of Hobbs and DODDS-Pacific (and bear in mind, I don’t necessarily agree with the decisions), folks should remember that the cuts, adjustments and changes are being mandated at a level much higher than Hobbs.

While he handles the nuts-and-bolts logistics and specifics of the changes as discussed by the Far East ADs and finalized by the area director, DODEA and DOD no doubt mandated that a certain budgetary figure be met, and this is DODDS Pacific’s and Hobbs’ way of meeting that mandate.

We’re in a budget-cutting age. That’s just how things are. Bottom line.

Whenever any major change comes to something that’s been done a certain way for a large number of years – pool play has been part of Far East tournaments since 1987 – there’s bound to be pushback. However unpopular the decisions, they’ve been made and rather than rebel and stand hard and fast against them, more can be gained by trying to make things work. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, “If you go looking for the negative in things expecting to find it, surely you will.”

It may be said the missed class argument doesn’t hold water, since especially the D-I tournament teams will travel on Sunday and Friday.

I wasn’t on board with this before, but the attempting to follow the Europe format strictly in terms of tournament length does make some sense, in that people might ask the following: “Why does it take DODDS Pacific six days to finish tournaments when DODDS Europe does them in three?”

The argument against is that teams must qualify for most DODDS Europe tournaments, whereas DODDS Pacific invites 16 comers to D-I and 12 to D-II and doesn’t always fill those fields, particularly in springtime.

As far as savings, whether it’s substantial or trivial, savings are savings. Any money that can come back into the coffers and be used for things like new computers or textbooks or other equipment is always welcome.

As far as whether the changes will last, who knows? Maybe it will be determined that the new methodology is worse than the old and revert back to the way things had been done, as was the case in 1998-99. Let’s see what we’ll see first.

***

Foul shooting continues to suffer in the New Year Classic. Through the first two playoff games and all 12 pool-play games, the eight teams have combined to shoot 196-for-363, 54 percent.

Fick made an excellent point. “Players aren’t practicing shooting,” he said. “A good shooter is automatically a good free-throw shooter. Players these days, they just want to go out and play.”

***

One familiar face seen at the New Year Classic was none other than Steve Steffy, the longtime lieutenant of the St. Mary’s International basketball coaching staff. He resided in the world’s most exciting city and taught at the southwestern Tokyo campus for 20 years before retiring a few years ago. Now, he travels the States, and on this week flew to Tokyo to be with Titans coach George Clarkson, a longtime friend who teaches at St. Mary’s elementary school and is in his third season coaching the varsity.

Steffy was the right-hand man for longtime Titans coach Lannie Peterson, who retired after the 1993-94 season, and his successor, the late Fred Sava, who coached the Titans to surprise Far East D-I championships in 2001, 2002 and 2009, his last title coming at Yokota, a 35-33 victory that turned out to be Sava’s last game. Sava died on Jan. 11, 2010, of brain cancer.

“Fred was the man,” Steffy said. “He put St. Mary’s on the map, basketball-wise.”
 

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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.)

 

Oct. 24: Dave Ornauer talks about cross country, football and other Pacific sporting events occurring this weekend.

Oct. 17: The Nile C. Kinnick football team can ensure its fans have good seats for the Far East Division I final with a win over Kadena on Saturday.

Oct. 3: Dave Ornauer talks about the weekend's key football matchups, including Matthew C. Perry at American School In Japan.