CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A searing pain shot through Michael Bennett’s right shoulder as he reached back to try to strip the ball from Yokota tight end Riki Byrnes.

It was early in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s interarea game — Kubasaki traveling up to take on the Panthers.

Bennett, a senior, was trying to force a fumble that could have changed the tide of what became a 51-21 Yokota victory. Instead, he suffered a dislocated shoulder that might end his season before it really began.

“I was like, ‘Coach, pop it back in, so I can go back in,’” Bennett recalled at Wednesday’s practice, two days before the start of the best-of-three Okinawa Activities Council series with Kadena. “But then, I’m thinking it’s serious. It’s the most painful injury I’ve suffered.”

It also may have thrown a monkey wrench into Kubasaki’s plans to return to the Far East Class AA playoffs. The winner of the best-of-three series hosts Seoul American in the semifinals.

Kubasaki begins that series minus Bennett and two other running backs, Josh Bales (hip) and Marquette Warren (ankle).

“That’s football,” coach Fred Bales said. “You always know that’s a possibility. You deal with it the best you can. Certainly, you don’t want anybody to get hurt. You’ll miss them, but everybody else will do their best.”

Bales figured he had it all planned, he said. After four weeks of split-squad games between Kadena and Kubasaki, the Dragons could get themselves a preseason game as one unit against Yokota as a dress rehearsal for the season. He hadn’t planned on the injuries.

“I haven’t been through a season yet in my 30 years of coaching when I’ve not had some key injury,” he said. “That’s one of the tough parts of the game.”

For his part, Bennett hopes to be back for the playoffs, provided Kubasaki can advance.

“Otherwise, I won’t be playing at all,” he said.

Does Bales regret going to Yokota for a meaningless preseason game?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “To have a team, to have a program, you have to have games. That was a game against a quality opponent. We want do to more of that.”

Bales said that the game was an important first step for a Kubasaki team that, like Kadena, is facing a rough uphill road. Both squads have lost much talent to graduation and transfers since their last playoff appearance (Kubasaki won the title in 2005; Kadena lost in the final last year).

“We have to earn our place,” said Bales, whose Dragons return just eight players, four of them starters.

Coach Sergio Mendoza’s Panthers are in equally dire straits in terms of experienced players — five returning players, four starters.

“It will be more difficult this year. There are a lot of obstacles. Both Fred and I agree, our climb up the mountain is tougher,” Mendoza said, adding that the four-week split-squad season, in which Kadena Black and Gold faces Kubasaki Green and White, “can be a hindrance.”

“We’re just now coming together,” Mendoza said. “We sense that unity later than teams that have been playing since September. But if we work hard, we’ll do well.”

Only five players return to Kadena black-and-gold, four of them starters. Among the biggest losses, at least statistically, was running back Sean Shattuck, who took his 727 yards and seven touchdowns on 54 carries back to Oklahoma, from where he came.

Mendoza and offensive coordinator SteveSchrock are hoping players such as Schrock’s son, Stanley, a multipurpose sophomore, can ably wield the keys to Schrock’s University of Missouri-style spread offense dubbed the “Schrock & Awe.”

In place of Shattuck’s sheer numbers, Mendoza is optimistic in what he calls “some intangibles that I’ve not seen in other teams I’ve had.”

“These guys hold each other accountable to their commitments,” Mendoza said. “There’s a sense of spirit. A brotherhood that will carry them. The sense of unity is far more important” than what one player can do. “If we work hard, we’ll represent Okinawa well.”

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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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