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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — As the Seoul American Falcons entered this season, equalling their seventh-place finish in the 2005 Far East High School Girls Class AA Volleyball Tournament seemed difficult at best.

Their 6-foot-5 star spiker, Margaret Nurse, graduated in June. Coach Denny Hilgar was left to cobble together a squad of mostly young players short on experience.

It’s ironic, then, that the Falcons placed two spots higher than in 2005.

“I'll take ‘ironic’ any day,” Hilgar said after the Falcons swept John F. Kennedy of Guam 25-16, 25-23, 25-15 in the fifth-place match on Saturday at Seoul American’s Falcon Gym.

Junior middle blocker Avianca Manning led the way with 10 spike kills in 21 attempts plus four block points, finishing the tournament with 97 kills in 199 attempts and 34 blocks in 10 matches.

“It’s been tough, it’s been stressful, but it does a lot psychologically for an inexperienced team to do better than last year,” Hilgar said. “You’re thinking, ‘Hey, I’m not so bad myself.’”

Rather than tending to rely on one standout player, Hilgar said he emphasized that all 10 players needed to contribute.

“The year after you’ve had your stud players is the year you try to develop some sense of team,” Hilgar said. “That’s the toughest year of rebuilding.”

Hilgar must replace four seniors, most of them defensive specialists. But with freshman middle blocker Gabriella Matautia and junior outside hitter Erica Anglade returning, the future looks bright.

“I have six of these 10 back and look where we finished,” Hilgar said. “I’m really excited about the future. We can only get stronger.”

Smith, ASIJ end 15-year title droughtAmerican School In Japan ended a 15-year title drought in the Class AA tournament, outlasting George Washington of Guam 25-17, 23-25, 25-14, 25-23 in the championship match.

“It’s exciting,” said senior Rachel Smith, a State Department dependent playing for the Mustangs. Smith’s father, Gentry, is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

ASIJ last won the tournament in 1991 at Camp Zama, Japan. Most observers pinned the “team to beat” label on the Mustangs, who resisted the urge, Smith said, to enter the tournament with too big of a head. “We were really excited but not overconfident,” she said. “We just told ourselves to come in and play the best we could and we did that.”

ASIJ built its title team around middle blocker Catherine Thornton, who came back from knee surgery in February to garner tournament MVP honors. Supporting Thornton were all-tournament selections Adrienne Hughes and Brylie Gray.

“We had everything,” Smith said of a team that lost just three sets the entire season, two during the Far East tournament.

“It’s awesome,” tearful coach Gail Lanier said. “They’re a phenomenal group of young ladies who played their heart out the whole season.”

It was the 26th time in 31 years that an international school won the title. On Friday, an international school also won the Class A crown at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, for the seventh time in nine years when Morrison Christian Academy defeated Faith Academy in straight sets.

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