After the best season in the team’s seven-year history, what’s next for the Guam High Panthers?

On the surface, it might appear to be a rebuilding year. Tom Hildreth, the team’s fifth coach, inherits a squad that lost a handful of key components, including Theo Tom, the first Guam High player ever named first-team All-Island.

Given his football background — the 57-year-old Hildreth coached for 28 years in Iowa before coming to Guam High two years ago — he doesn’t buy the notion that the team might regress. He would rather think of the team as reloading, not rebuilding.

“The kids have good attitudes. We have some size and athletic ability,” he said. “We just have to take those diamonds and polish them up.”

To get off on the right foot in trying to better that third-place finish, the Panthers must get through Saturday’s opener against Father Duenas Memorial, the team that ousted Guam High 23-14 in the island playoffs last season. The Friars finished second in the league.

“Wouldn’t you know, our first game is against Father Duenas, one of the premier teams in the league,” Hildreth said.

That game begins the Panthers’ march through a double round-robin regular-season schedule, the first time since 2001 that teams play one another twice. All league teams qualify for the playoffs, which culminate with the island championship Bamboo Bowl on Nov. 6.

Hildreth acknowledges the problem the Panthers face every season: trying to build a team with transient players, while the squads of indigenous islanders enjoy coaching and player continuity.

“That’s difficult to deal with,” Hildreth said. “When you’re dealing with sophomores, juniors, seniors who have never played before, it’s like starting over with a junior-high program.”

“Outside of straight-ahead blocking, they don’t seem to understand the concept of pulling, crossblocking, seal blocking, things that are second nature where I came from,” Hildreth said.

On the plus side, however, the Panthers have potential.

Veteran Matt Sablan and newcomer Alex Weaver, both in excess of 200 pounds, anchor a line in front of new quarterback Doug Bloom and a stable of solid running backs. Bookending the line on a defense that “loves to hit” are ends Darren Lawson and Chris Hoyle.

“Our strength is going to be the line,” Hildreth said. “We have some new and returning kids who we feel can match up with anybody. Not only are they big, but they’re athletic. That’s what’s going to carry us. If they can stay healthy, play together and understand the offense, we’ll be OK.”

If so, it would continue the program’s metamorphosis from bottom-feeder — it entered last season 9-28 overall and had been outscored 1,284-350 — into title contender.

“Enthusiasm is starting to build,” Hildreth said. “I’d like to think we have a program that’s turning around.”

Guam High Panthers capsule

2003 record: 4-3-1, .571, 109 points for, 125 points against, third place in Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam regular season, playoffs.

Head coach: Tom Hildreth, first season.

Base offenses: Wing-T, pro set, slot-I.

Base defenses: 4-3, 5-2, 5-3.

Key returnees: Matt Sablan, Sr., C; Joey Chop, Sr., RB; Matt Fowler, Sr., FB; Ed Poppe, Sr., E/WR; Chris Hoyle, Jr., TE/DE.

Key newcomers: Doug Bloom, Jr., QB; Alex Weaver, Jr., L; Darren Lawson, Sr., RB/DE.

Strengths: Size in line should fuel solid running game. Defense, across the board, “loves to hit,” Hildreth said.

Weaknesses: Lack of depth at many positions.

Overview: Hildreth, the team’s fifth head coach in seven seasons, inherits a good foundation in a sizeable, experienced line. Assuming the team stays healthy and learns his new system, a repeat of the school’s best-ever third-place finish, maybe higher, might not be out of the question.

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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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