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It’s one thing to reach the mountaintop. It’s another to stay there.

That’s what coach Ken Hudson and the Kadena Panthers girls basketball team face in the 2003-04 season.

They’re loaded with seven returnees, three of them starters, from a squad that unexpectedly roared to its fourth Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament title in February.

But Hudson knows the “defending champion” label come with new challenges.

“No matter how good or bad you are, everybody’s after you,” Hudson said. “We just have to flat out be better than everybody else if we’re going to win.”

Being better, he said, means not just fielding sheer talent but taking the proper mental approach. “It’s a whole different set of values, a whole different mentality as defending champion,” he said.

Having key components is half the battle.

“All in all, we should be fine. It just depends on them,” Hudson said of his team. “It’s how hard they want to work, how much they want to learn and what they want to do.”

Reigning Class AA MVP Theresa Gittens, a senior point guard, will start with senior post player Katie LaGrave.

Also returning is sophomore power forward Liz Cotto. Bolstering that company are senior Kim Lyle (small forward), juniors Britney McCauley (forward) and Cherlissa Dukes (guard) and sophomore Allison Montes de Oca (power forward).

“The plane was good to us,” Hudson said of gaining Audrey Mendoza, a senior forward transfer from Japan’s E.J. King.

Senior Courtnie Paschall will provide even more depth for Kadena.

“We have some spots that need to be filled but I’m confident the people will step up,” Gittens said.

Are the Panthers the team to beat?

“I would never be so presumptuous as to say that,” Hudson said. “I will say that we’ll be competitive.”

The team will get its first taste of action with Friday’s Okinawa-American League game against Urasoe, a Japanese team, at Kadena High.

Meanwhile, a host of other squads prepare to launch their bids to knock the Panthers off their Class AA pedestal:

¶ Okinawa’s Kubasaki, which finished eighth last year after winning the 2002 championship, welcomes an old coaching hand back to the helm. Bob Driggs, owner of three Class AA titles in the 1980s, returns after a 12-year absence.

¶ Coach Henry Falk of 2001 champion Nile C. Kinnick hopes continuity can fuel a new title run; senior Carol Tully and junior Jasmine Jordan have been with him since they were seventh-graders.

¶ Coach Sarah Richardson of 2000 runner-up Robert D. Edgren welcomes junior Liz Lally, a Zama American transfer, to the team.

¶ The only other Class AA school with new coaching is Zama American; mentoring the Trojans this season are Parish Jones and his wife, Veronica Tipton-Jones.

¶ On the other end of the spectrum is Charlotte Hicks, who begins her 18th season at Seoul American. She welcomes the Daniels sisters, Demeka and Janal, transfers from Texas, whom she hopes will boost the lineup.¶ Among international schools, 2003 Class A (small schools) Tournament champion Faith Academy of Manila is slated to return to the Class AA level. Reigning Class A MVP Jessica Nelson (guard) and Haley Shaw (forward) spearhead Faith’s drive for a fifth Class AA title since 1997.

Seoul American Falcons

Yongsan Garrison, South Korea

Coach: Charlotte Hicks, 18th season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 24-6; Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference, 13-1; third at Far East Class AA tournament.

Key returners: Sheriah Taua, junior, shooting guard-small forward; Ashley Grandy, junior, guard; Whitney Blain, senior, power forward; Amy Bakameyer, junior, guard.

Key newcomers: Demeka Daniels, senior, center-forward; Janal Daniels, junior, shooting guard-small forward (both transfer from Texas); Chivonne Floyd, sophomore, power forward; Kim Lee, sophomore, shooting guard-power forward; Colleen McNulty, freshman, power forward.

Outlook: Hicks hopes the Daniels sisters can give the Falcons an offensive spark. “They play team ball and at a little higher level than our kids normally,” she said. With their presence, Blain’s rebounding and the rest of the team’s improvement, don’t expect a drop-off.

Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils

Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan

Coach: Henry Falk, fifth season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 23-6; Japan Basketball League, 9-1, first place; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 10-3, second place; seventh at Far East Class AA tournament.

Key returners: Carol Tully, senior, guard-forward; Lualhati Johnson, sophomore, shooting guard; Jasmine Jordan, junior, point guard.

Key newcomers: Nikki Fulton, sophomore, forward; Corinne Ray, junior, guard-forward.

Outlook: Continuity is a big key; Falk has coached Tully and Jordan since their middle-school days. Tully is the one of the school’s best girls athletes. Jordan has gotten more confident running point. Johnson can spread the floor with pinpoint outside shooting. Fulton already is contributing. Good bet to challenge for Class AA title.

Robert D. Edgren Eagles

Misawa Air Base, Japan

Coach: Sarah Richardson, 14th season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 16-10; Japan Basketball League, 8-7, third place; sixth at Far East Class AA tournament.

Key returners: Janae Burt, junior, center-forward; Sarah Campbell, senior, guard-forward; Stephanie Patrick, junior, point guard.

Key newcomers: Liz Lally, junior, forward (transfer from Zama American); Samantha Johnson, junior, forward; Brandi Calhoun, freshman, guard; Kyrstine Hornsly, freshman, guard.

Outlook: Lally and Burt should step in and fill key roles. Patrick should give Richardson the point guard she’s needed the past three seasons. Hornsly and Calhoun have great potential. Don’t expect the Eagles to drop off.

Zama American Trojans

Camp Zama, Japan

Coaches: Parish Jones and Veronica Tipton-Jones, first season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 13-14; Japan Basketball League, 7-5, second place; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 3-6, fifth place; fourth at Far East Class AA tournament.

Key returners: Simara Williams, senior, forward; Adri Legaspi, junior, forward; Samantha Leipheimer, senior, guard; Bermishia Thomas, senior, center; Sarah Streeton, senior, guard.

Key newcomers: Michelle Remogat, senior, forward; Elli Legaspi, sophomore, guard; Charmeeka Scroggins, junior, forward; Deanna James, freshman, center; Kate Shicks, sophomore, guard-forward.

Outlook: Plan is to rely on quickness to overcome lack of height; tallest player is 5-foot-9. Should be competitive.

Yokota Panthers

Yokota Air Base, Japan

Coach: Ricardo Cabral, second season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 12-14; Japan Basketball League, 6-6, fourth place; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 5-7, third place.

Key returners: Cari Bruschuk, junior, point guard; Danita Ross, junior, shooting guard-small forward.

Key newcomers: Victoria Sanders, sophomore, center; Darlene Seeley, junior, shooting guard; China Roach, freshman, point guard-shooting guard (transfer from Virginia).

Outlook: Pedigree could mean a lot: Cabral is a former three-time All-Air Force player. Cabral expects Roach to be an impact player with enormous potential. Otherwise, team is young but athletic and coachable.

Kadena Panthers

Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

Coach: Ken Hudson, second season.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 16-10; Okinawa Activities Council and Okinawa-American League, 4-2; defending Far East Class AA tournament champion.

Key returners: Theresa Gittens, senior, point guard (reigning Class AA tournament MVP); Katie LaGrave, senior, forward; Liz Cotto, sophomore, power forward; Kim Lyle, senior, small forward; Britney McCauley, junior, forward; Cherlissa Dukes, junior, point guard-shooting guard; Allison Montes de Oca, sophomore, power forward.

Key newcomers: Courtnie Paschall, senior, forward; Audrey Mendoza, senior, forward (transfer from E.J. King, Japan).

Outlook: This team has it all: depth, athleticism, experience, leadership and a coach who inherited a team at midseason last year and won it all. Panthers must not become complacent, and must accept that they won’t sneak up on anybody this year.

Kubasaki Dragons

Camp Foster, Okinawa

Coaches: Bob Driggs, 13th season, first since 1991-92.

2002-03 season record: Overall, 8-18; Okinawa Activities Council and Okinawa-American League, 1-6; eighth at Far East Class AA tournament.

Key returners: Shanon Sumter, senior, forward; Erin Foote, junior, guard; Monique Pearson, senior, guard-forward; Shenea McDaniel, senior, forward; Debra Kinsley, senior, guard.

Key newcomer: Kimi Cece, freshman, guard.

Outlook: After having three coaches the past three seasons, the Dragons welcome an old mentor, Driggs, who has three Class AA titles to his credit, the last in 1990. Expect this team to contend.

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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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