YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – With virtually the entire offense and most of its defense back from their school-first Far East Division I football championship, a Yokota repeat title might seem a cinch.
Not a chance, coach and players say. It’s one thing to climb to the mountaintop, which the Panthers did 34-6 last Nov. 12 over Kubasaki; it takes sometimes twice that much work to stay atop the mountain.
“We talked about it on the first day of practice,” said Tim Pujol, who’s coached the Panthers for 14 seasons, the most successful stretch in school history. “They know how much it takes to win. Now, we’ll find out how much harder it is to maintain it.”
Easing the process is the fact that the offensive line and backfield return intact, with fleet seniors Morgan Breazell and Stanley Speed leading the charge. The defense took some transfer hits, but 10 total starters and 14 total players return, the most since 2001-02.
While senior Jesse Hogan recovers from off-season surgery, the rest of the line, including Victor Madaris, Dylan Kessler, Max Lester and Jake Jackson, return a year older, a year wiser and with more muscle. It’s a unit that’s played together heading into a fourth season.
“We’ve got to work harder to stay (on top), but we’re still the headbusters,” Speed said. “We’re working hard to do it again.”
While most of those puzzle pieces will receive their diplomas come June – “Better enjoy this year,” Pujol says, tongue in cheek, from time to time – the Panthers have some “good, young kids” who will take the reins from the soon-to-be-departed senior group.
In addition to defending the Far East Division I title, the Panthers do have some “unfinished business,” as a couple of players put it.
American School In Japan’s Mustang Valley has served as a personal house of horrors for Yokota, which has lost its last three visits to ASIJ.
“All of the seniors, we haven’t won there yet,” Breazell said. “It’s always tough to play there. But we’re going to come out stronger and not think about the past and just go out and play.”
Yokota Air Base, Japan
2011 season record—9-1, .900, 380 points for, 64 points against; 6-0 DODDS Japan, 1.000, 254 points for, 19 points against, DODDS Japan champion; 5-1 Kanto Plain, .833, 229 points for, 46 points against, Kanto Plain co-champion. Won DODDS Pacific Far East Division I semifinal game 42-6 over Kadena on Oct. 29 at Yokota; won D-I championship game 34-6 over Kubasaki on Nov. 12 at Yokota.
Head coach—Tim Pujol, 14th season, overall record 108-19, .850, 12 DODDS Japan and Kanto titles, five Rising Sun Bowl championships, one D-I title.
Base offense—Multiple, wishbone, power I, I.
Base defense—5-2, 4-3.
Key performers—Jesse Hogan, Sr., OL-DL; Stanley Speed, Sr., QB-DB; Dylan Kessler, Sr., OL-DL; Victor Madaris, Sr. OL-DL; Max Lester, Sr., OL-DL; Jake Jackson, Sr., OL-DL; Morgan Breazell, Sr., RB (1,022 yards, 121 carries); Raymond Butler, Sr., RB; Cody Trask, Sr., E; Preston Brooks, Sr., RB.
Strengths—Size in the line on both sides of the ball, experience and speed in the backfield, most returning starters Pujol has had in 11 seasons.
Drawbacks—Little to speak of, save for the Panthers graduating most of its starters after this season.
Overview—Contending, contending, contending. On paper, at least, like the days of Panthers yore.
Friday, Aug. 24—at Robert D. Edgren, 7 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 31—vs. Zama American, 7 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 7—at American School In Japan, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 15—at Kubasaki, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 22—at Seoul American, 6 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 28—at Nile C. Kinnick, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 5—vs. American School In Japan, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 12—at Zama American, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 19—vs. Nile C. Kinnick, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 3—vs. Kadena, 7 p.m.