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Feb. 22, 2003, still sears in the memories of coach Bruce Barker and the returning members of the Osan American girls basketball team.

Seventy seconds into the third quarter, the Cougars held a 28-17 lead over Manila’s Faith Academy. A third straight Far East Class A Tournament title seemed almost certain. But the Cougars, exhausted from playing four games in 24 hours, drowned in a tide of Faith scoring and defense. They lost 49-39.

Barker and the seven returning players from that team want to erase that memory by writing a happy ending to the 2003-04 season.

“Everyone is always talking about how we were so close last year, how that would have been our third title,” junior forward Mina Davis said.

“Mistakes are our best teachers,” junior guard Sharon Kroening said. “It gave us more of an insight on what more we need to work on and it most definitely makes us more eager to work harder.”

They’ll get hard work quickly, playing two Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference games this weekend.

The Cougars have a guard-oriented roster bolstered by the league’s tallest player, 6-foot-2 sophomore center Margaret Nurse.

Barker and the Cougars might have the tools needed for another title run. The team also welcomes back guards Angeles Farrulla, Suzi Devin and Sarah Gates, all of whom saw significant minutes last season.

The guard rotation remains a question, Barker said, because after a late start, “we’re not together yet as a team. We have a lot to do to get ready just to perform in the season.”

But “the potential is there,” he said. “We have 10 who can play the game. There are a couple of younger ones who are learning. ... We just don’t do some of the fundamental things yet but we’re hoping it will come around. By the middle of the season, I hope, we’ll be OK.”

Kroening, Barker said, compares favorably to guard Lori Shields, who graduated.

“She’s quicker and bigger and a good athlete. She’s not the shooter Lori was, but athletically she’s every bit as good.”

Nurse “is going to help tremendously with the boards,” Barker said. “She’ll be tough to stop when she gets the ball.”

The guard surplus means several people will have to get used to playing different spots and the team will try to use quickness to compensate for a lack of height, Kroening said.

“We’re used to the tall people we’ve always seemed to luckily have,” she said. “It’s very different.”

Barker said the Cougars don’t face a total rebuilding but “this season will be tough. Our newcomers have yet to be tested. But I am confident that we will do very well.”

Possibly working in the Cougars’ favor: Faith will play in the Class AA Tournament on Okinawa in February and most of Osan’s Class A opposition faces major rebuilding:

• Coach Rob Victoria’s E.J. King Cobras of Japan take the court for the first time in four years without sharpshooting Maria Havens. Neither of the two returning players saw significant minutes.

• Matthew C. Perry welcomes first-year coach Bob Funk and must make do for the first time since 1998-99 without long-range shooter Tia Fluellen. Also gone are freshman flash Kaili Rowland and workmanlike senior Cortaza Hall.

• Pusan American still has the shooting half of its “Killer Brees” guard combo, junior Brieanna Carroll. But Breanne Robison’s transfer to Texas has left new coach Jonathan Parker seeking a capable replacement at the point.

• Taegu American might hand the Cougars their toughest challenge. Six players, including three starters, return and coach Michelle Chandler calls junior transfer guard Shleah Cooper a “player to watch.”

Korea

Osan American Cougars

Osan Air Base, South Korea

Coach: Bruce Barker, ninth season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 25-14; Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference, 14-2, second place; Far East Class A tournament runner-up.

Key returners: Sarah Gates, senior, guard; Angeles Farrulla, senior, guard; Suzi Devin, junior, guard; Alyssa Kopp, junior, shooting guard; Sharon Kroening, junior, point guard/small forward; Margaret Nurse, sophomore, center.Key newcomers: Whytne Fellows, senior, guard; Ariana Farrulla, sophomore, guard/small forward; Elizabeth Juergens, sophomore, guard; Destiny Harris, freshman, guard; Tariqka Sheffey, freshman, guard/small forward.Outlook: Plenty of experienced veterans and the 6-foot-2 Nurse’s presence make the Cougars a contender. Depth may be an issue but Barker’s rotation system will bring the younger players up to speed quickly. Excellent chance of regaining the Class A throne they held in 2001 and 2002.

Taegu American Warriors

Camp George, South Korea

Coach: Michelle Chandler, third season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 14-14; Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference, 9-6, third place; tied for fifth in Far East Class A tournament.

Key returners: Melissa Lee, senior, guard; Ashley Gooch, junior, guard/forward; Kelli Cox, sophomore, forward/center; Michelle Weal, sophomore, guard; Carolyn Choi, senior, guard; Lynette Grant, sophomore, guard.Key newcomers: Shleah Cooper, junior, guard; Amani Bradley, freshman, forward; Tia Moran, junior, forward; Betsy Lubuag, freshman.Outlook: Chandler holds high hopes for the team, though young, to be competitive with Osan at the small-school level. Cooper’s addition, she said, adds strength in the backcourt, takes pressure off Gooch and provides balance in the lineup. Potential for Class A final-four finish.

Pusan American Panthers

Camp Hialeah, South Korea

Coach: Jonathan Parker, first season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 11-14; Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference, 6-7, fifth place; tied for fifth in Far East Class A tournament.

Key returners: Brieanna Carroll, junior, point guard-shooting guard; Aimee Brown, junior; Jessica Mitchell, senior; Angie Vandersys, freshman; Mindy John, freshman; Shea Lippert, eighth grade.Newcomers: Kristina Sagstetter, freshman; Shabraya Hays, eighth grade.Outlook: Tiny enrollment of around 50 historically has meant small teams, even reaching down to middle-school ranks. This season, seven players are eighth- or seventh-graders. Without the other half of the “Killer Brees,” Breanne Robison, handling the ball, even more burden falls on the ultra-competitive, athletic Carroll. Panthers will be competitive and exciting but youth and inexperience again will be an issue.

Japan

E.J. King Cobras

Sasebo Naval Base, Japan

Coach: Robert Victoria, second season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 16-17; Japan Basketball League, 0-7, sixth place; third in Far East Class A tournament.

Key returners: Michelle Tuyor, sophomore, forward; Bianca Cruz, sophomore, guard.Outlook: From the competitive days with Maria Havens at guard and Anna Bickenbach underneath, Victoria and the Cobras face a major overhaul. Just one player is a senior, two are sophomores and the rest are freshmen, some of whom show promise and potential. But contention is a year or so away.

Matthew C. Perry Samurai

Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan

Coach: Robert Funk, first season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 16-12; Japan Basketball League, 3-7, fifth place; fourth in Far East Class A tournament.

Key returners: Mariesa Dacanay, junior; Brittany Scott, junior; Jennifer Slater, sophomore; Saree Bryant, sophomore.Key newcomers: Cindy Stasher, junior, point guard; Marinor Ifurung, sophomore, shooting guard; Christina Sindac, freshman, guard.Outlook: Pretty good potential, particularly among newcomers, but replacing departed senior shooter Tia Fluellen and post players Cortaza Hall and Kaili Rowland will be a tough chore. Quick and athletic, coachable and disciplined, Funk says he’s hoping his young, inexperienced and small but athletic team can mature quickly.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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