KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Runners-up. Also-rans. Second-best. Close but no cigar. Those terms could very easily describe the frustration that Kadena High School’s girls basketball team endured in 2011-12.
Second-place finishes in both the Christmas Classic at Yokota and the Martin Luther King Invitational on Okinawa preceded a 57-33 thumping at the hands of Faith Academy in the Far East Division I Tournament finals last Feb. 25 at Yokota.
Their only championship was a token one, 4-0 sweep of Kubasaki in the Okinawa Activities Council regular-season series.
Now, the Panthers enter the season determined, primed and hungering for redemption, second-year head coach Willie Ware says.
“We’re not coming in saying that we’re the ones to beat. They’re still hungry. They have something to prove,” Ware said.
That something to prove is getting back to the D-I title mountain the Panthers last occupied in 2008. Virtually the entire lineup that started against Faith last February returns, but Ware says he recognizes that alone won’t get the job done.
“We’ve got the pieces,” he said, adding, however, that he wants his team to get “back to basics, work on fundamentals and get focused.”
He takes the blame, Ware says, for not having the team prepared for Faith in the championship, and vows to do things differently this time.
“The way we lost last year against an excellent Faith team, we put together one of our worst games,” Ware said. “Hopefully, we won’t make the same mistakes and I won’t take things for granted. Athletically, we were there. It’s the little things that kill you.”
As last season, the road to the D-I title, in a tournament that returns to Yokota, might go through one of the Kanto Plain powerhouse teams.
American School In Japan returns senior Bessie Noll and junior Liz Thornton. The Mustangs are already 7-0, having beaten a Nile C. Kinnick team favored to win DODDS Japan and blessed with super sophomore guards DeAsia Brown and Alyshia Allison that some observers are calling the best Red Devils backcourt in decades.
Seoul American will likely have a say; the Falcons boast a solid returning cast along with four AAU-schooled newcomers from the States.
Kubasaki continues rebuilding, while Yokota must get used to not having star guard Erika Ettl in the lineup for the first time since 2007.
On the Division II side, Daegu could have the parts to make another title run, but must replace the talents of graduated Raven Calloway and Maleah Potts Cash and their combined 20 points per game. “We’ll be shopping for points,” said new coach Gregory Miller.
Perhaps the tallest team in the region is Matthew C. Perry. Already wealthy in height with junior Courtney Beall, the Samurai are joined by freshman skyscraper Ani Russo and several others at whom opponents will likely be gazing upward.
E.J. King loses junior post Jaimie Staggers to the PCS plane on Dec. 16. Osan American and Zama American continue to rebuild and also welcome new coaches.