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Seoul American Falcons sophomore guard Chris Churchwell didn’t make the cut for the trip to last February’s Far East Class AA tournament on Okinawa, but came back strong to make the Falcons’ Far East roster this season.

Seoul American Falcons sophomore guard Chris Churchwell didn’t make the cut for the trip to last February’s Far East Class AA tournament on Okinawa, but came back strong to make the Falcons’ Far East roster this season. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

Seoul American Falcons sophomore guard Chris Churchwell didn’t make the cut for the trip to last February’s Far East Class AA tournament on Okinawa, but came back strong to make the Falcons’ Far East roster this season.

Seoul American Falcons sophomore guard Chris Churchwell didn’t make the cut for the trip to last February’s Far East Class AA tournament on Okinawa, but came back strong to make the Falcons’ Far East roster this season. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

Deciding who would go to the Far East basketball tournament and who wouldn’t was a difficult task for Kubasaki coach Chris Sullivan.

Deciding who would go to the Far East basketball tournament and who wouldn’t was a difficult task for Kubasaki coach Chris Sullivan. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

What should be one of the most exciting weeks of the Pacific high school basketball season is preceded by the worst of nightmares for some coaches — a time to decide which players on their regular-season squad survive the final cut and make the Far East tournament traveling team of 10.

Teams generally carry at least 12 players from the start of the season in November, selected during a week of tryouts. But by Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific rules, only a coach and 10 student-athletes, be it nine players and a manager or 10 players, may dress for Far East tournaments.

For a handful of coaches this season, that selection process is made even more difficult by the fact that all of their players have made significant contributions during the season. In effect, it becomes a second tryout.

“It’s hard,” fourth-year coach Chris Sullivan of Okinawa’s Kubasaki Dragons boys team said. “All season long, we talk about team building. To say we can only take 10 of 12 goes against all that.”

For Sullivan and a handful of other coaches, it means paying closer attention to their players in practice and games and then determining how to break the news to those players who won’t make the cut.

“No coach likes to make that choice,” said Steve Boyd, the fifth-year coach of the Seoul American Falcons boys squad. “I’m not looking forward to it. But you can’t avoid it. It has to be done.”

Ric Cabral, a three-time All-Air Force player from 1979 to 1981 who has coached the Yokota girls team in Japan for five years, has been on both sides of the fence.

“I’ve been cut before. I know exactly how they feel,” said Cabral, who was the last player cut from the Yokota base varsity team just days before the final Pacific Air Forces tournament in 1991 — and confessed he was bitter about it for days afterward.

“I didn’t want anything to do with the team,” Cabral said, adding that one of his teammates approached him shortly after he was cut and told him that they needed him to help prepare for the PACAF tournament.

“That snapped me out of it,” Cabral recalled. “I had been with the team the whole season. I was the 11th player on a team of 10. I was contributing, but I’d lost a couple of steps.”

With younger players, it’s a bit easier, he said.

“They’re more resilient,” Cabral said. “At the moment, they’re hurting. But a week later, they bounce back.”

Some coaches choose to break the news to the team as a group, on the premise that the team will bond and rally behind those who will be left behind. Others do it privately, to spare the player embarrassment of learning the news in front of teammates.

Either way, coaches say they try to put as positive a spin on it as they possibly can, given the circumstances.

“You tell them how tough a decision it is, that you’re sorry and you regret it,” Cabral said. “You tell them that they’re always a part of the team.”

For some, especially the underclassmen, it serves as a life lesson, Boyd and Cabral said, as well as an incentive to come back stronger the next season.

“They start making better choices,” Cabral said. “They get in better shape. They run cross country or track. They work on their game all year round. They get their grades up. And you see the ones who really want to make the team.”

One of Boyd’s players who missed the cut last year, sophomore guard Chris Churchwell, now is one of Boyd’s first options off the bench.

“Not only did he come back and make the squad, he’s contributing,” Boyd said.

Above all, coaches say they emphasize to the players when they announce their decision that they’re putting the interests of the team above all else.

“We evaluate what each player brings to the team, that it’s never personal, and we have to put team ahead of personal ambition,” Sullivan said.

None of that makes it any easier to do, he said. “It’s unfortunate to put the coaches and players on the spot like that,” Sullivan said. “But that’s the regulation and we have to follow the regulation.”

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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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