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Bessie Noll of American School In Japan, the first girl to record a pitching win in Far East Baseball Tournament history, is one of eight players back from a Mustangs squad that won the Far East title in its first entry in the three-year-old tournament.
Bessie Noll of American School In Japan, the first girl to record a pitching win in Far East Baseball Tournament history, is one of eight players back from a Mustangs squad that won the Far East title in its first entry in the three-year-old tournament. (Erika Brun/Special to Stars and Stripes)

With eight players returning from last season’s first Far East Tournament title team, it might be pretty easy to label American School In Japan as Pacific high school baseball’s team to beat.

But even the Mustangs express caution that an ASIJ group including veteran battery mates Nathan Lorentz and Hayden Jardine, junior girl star Bessie Noll and promising sophomore Justin Novak isn’t a lock to repeat.

“There are a lot of teams out there that will be tough to beat,” said coach John Seevers of a Mustangs team that outlasted Kadena 11-9 in the rainy Far East final last May 26 in South Korea.

They won the title in their first time at Far East despite only a 10-game regular-season caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that truncated the Kanto Plain and DODDS Japan seasons.

Traditional Kanto Plain powerhouse St. Mary’s International and the current Nile C. Kinnick crop featuring reigning Far East tournament MVP Donald Ross loom as regular-season threats. “They always play us tough,” Seevers said.

Kadena, which has two Far East runner-up finishes to its credit, and Kubasaki, which won the inaugural Far East title in 2010, “have always been outstanding; I have a lot of respect for them,” Seevers said.

He and his charges say they’re cautiously optimistic regarding the 2012 season. “We just hope to be competitive, and we’re very much looking forward to being a part of Far East,” Seevers said.

Opposing teams feel ASIJ is far better than just competitive.

“They’re always strong and well coached,” Kinnick coach Michael Valenzuela said. “Eight players back, that’s going to be a tough team.”

“They’re going to be the top team,” Kubasaki coach Randy Toor said. “You have to play a really good game, play good defense (to beat them). If it comes down to a slugfest, they’ll take it no matter what.”

Both Toor and new Kadena coach Kent Grubbs feature squads of sophomores with a full year under their belts as starters. “I’m still cautious; when you start seven sophomores, you’re still very young,” Toor said.

But it also means they’re more experienced. “They all can play,” Kadena assistant coach Don Prince said.

And the Panthers feel it may be their time to take the final step, after losing to ASIJ and Kubasaki in back-to-back Far East finals. “Not one player has any doubt that we can do this,” junior Jared Paul said.

Far East returns to Camp Walker’s Kelly Field, Victory Field at Camp Henry and Carroll Field at Camp Carroll and is scheduled for May 21-24.

Regular-season play begins this weekend at E.J. King in Japan and at Kadena on Okinawa. DODDS Korea teams generally wait until the weather warms, and aren’t scheduled to begin play until March 30-31.

The DODDS Japan season features two teams that have played their seasons in the fall against Western Japan Athletic Association teams since 2005.

E.J. King of Sasebo Naval Base and Matthew C. Perry of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni couldn’t otherwise play in the Far East tournament because it would have been out of season for them.

“I have 17 young men (who) are excited about the opportunity to play baseball in the spring,” new Perry coach Frank Macias said.

ornauerd@pstripes.osd.mil

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