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IKEGO HEIGHTS NAVAL HOUSING FACILITY, Japan — Half of their roster is at sea. Coach Isaac Lee is leaving. Receiver Robert Trisby has transferred. Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Mike Favors has retired.

Is this any way for the five-time defending champion Yokosuka Seahawks to enter the 2005 U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League season?

“There’s a big weight on our shoulders,” said coach James Lomax, who inherited Lee’s job. “We have a legacy to carry on.”

The Seahawks won the league championship 22-0 over the Misawa Marauders. Despite a 1-2 start, they won their last five games.

The regular-season standings were the league’s tightest: The Seahawks, Marauders and Yokota Raiders each finished 4-2, and the top three playoff seeds were decided by a complicated tie-breaker system.

But things such as tie-breakers might be far from Lomax’s mind as the Seahawks prepare to make a run at title No. 6.

The biggest worry, he said, is keeping enough healthy bodies on the field: 29 of their 57 players are at sea with the USS Kitty Hawk battle group, including veteran linebacker Stephen Fox, an anchor of the Seahawks’ defense.

“That’s always a way of life with us,” Lomax said. “The mission comes first. So we have to hope the shore-based players step up.”

He said he’s thankful for the presence of experienced long-time Seahawks such as center Tim Graves and defensive end Thomas Curry.

“I depend on those guys,” Lomax said. “They’re coaches on the field.”

Numbers certainly hurt the Yokota Warriors, who broke out of the gate at 4-0, only to drop their last three. Deployments and injuries were the culprits, said head coach Jacob Dowdell, whose roster numbers 27 players.

Adding to the Warriors’ problems is lack of home-field availability.

Yokota High School’s Bonk Field, which the Warriors have used for home games, is being resodded. The only other field large enough for football dimensions, Darling Field, was deemed “too dangerous” by Dowdell and Yokota’s fitness center staff.

So the Warriors must play two of their home games at Atsugi Naval Air Facility’s Reid Memorial Stadium and both their games against Yokosuka at Ikego, which the Seahawks will call home while Berkey Field at Yokosuka Naval Base is being renovated.

“Darling … is too uneven,” Dowdell said, adding that Atsugi “bent over backwards for us.”

How do his players feel about it?

“They just want to play,” Dowdell said.

Misawa isn’t lacking for players — it’s their experience level that worries veteran coach John Hemphill.

“We’re rebuilding almost from the ground up,” said Hemphill, who in the past few seasons has lost three-time All-League receiver Terry Lang and defensive stalwarts Woody Carter, Courtney Haralson and former league MVP Josh Morris.

“We have enough talent that we’ll be competitive; I just don’t know how many football players I have,” Hemphill said.

One newcomer who might make a difference is quarterback Fred Ellis, who played for Yokota High in the mid-1990s, the Raiders in the late 1990s and the old USFJ-AFL’s Okinawa Giants at the start of this decade.

“He has a cannon arm,” Hemphill said.

Though Atsugi’s White Dolphins went winless in seven tries in 2004, players and coaches on other teams spoke often of how their thin, 14-player roster never quit — one reason coach Ray Shabazz was named Coach of the Year.

Daniel Estrada inherits Shabazz’s post and welcomes a starting roster of 33, more than twice the size of last season’s.

“Now, we’re stocked, a little more healthy,” said Estrada, whose team already has a 13-7 preseason victory over Yokota. “We want to … put Atsugi football back on the map.

Team capsules

Yokosuka Seahawks

Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan

2004 record: 6-2 overall, 4-2 regular season. Won fifth straight regular-season and league championship, beat Atsugi 44-3 in playoff semifinal on Sept. 4, then shut out Misawa 22-0 in league championship game on Sept. 11, both at Yokosuka.

Head coach: James Lomax, first season.

Number of returning players: 29.

Key players: Tim Graves, C; Thomas Curry, DE; Stephen Fox, LB; Will Hall, QB; Alvin Johnson, QB; Luke Raimo, DT; Curtis White, WR.

Base offense: Pro-I.

Base defense: 4- and 5-man fronts.

Outlook: Contending. In addition to added pressure of defending five-time championship, Seahawks must overcome loss of three-time league Defensive Player of the Year Mike Favors, who has retired, and half its roster, which is underway with the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group, including Fox, perhaps the team’s best linebacker. Still, with newcomers such as triple-threat speedster White, team has talent to make deep run at six straight titles.

Misawa Marauders

Misawa Air Base, Japan

2004 record: 5-3 overall, 4-2 regular season. Reached second USFJ-AFL title game, losing 22-0 to Yokosuka on Sept. 11 at Yokosuka Naval Base, after winning semifinal playoff 7-6 over Yokota on Sept. 4 at Misawa Air Base.

Head coach: John Hemphill, third season.

Number of returning players: 11.

Key players: Kenji Blackwell, DE-TE; Garrett Smith, OL; Corey Hollingsworth, DT; James Crawford, RB; Andre Gaskin, RB; Mike Jackson, WR; Clarence Kerry, WR; Shandon Lang, RB; Mike Lowry, RB; Fred Ellis, QB.

Base offense: Pro-I.

Base defense: 4-3, 4-4.

Outlook: Rebuilding, but potential contender. Team must replace plenty of departed talents, such as former MVP Josh Morris and three-time All-League receiver Terry Lang. Smith, a Naval Academy alum and line stalwart for two seasons, departs next month. Blackwell and Hollingsworth bring fire to the defense, while new quarterback Ellis can make the deep throw. Question of how quickly talent can jell.

Yokota Warriors

Yokota Air Base, Japan

2004 record: 4-3 overall, 4-2 regular season. Opened with four straight victories but lost next three, including 7-6 playoff semifinal loss to Misawa on Sept. 4 at Misawa Air Base.

Head coach: Jacob Dowdell, first season.

Number of returning players: 12.

Key players: Patrick Piazza, C; Bruce Turner, QB; Jerrick Nunn, LB; Marty Wilson, S.

Base offense: Multiple pro and spread.

Base defense: 4-man fronts.

Outlook: Rebuilding. Biggest concern for Dowdell and Warriors is keeping enough players healthy and available to play, the lack of which hurt Yokota down the stretch last season. Also, lack of available fields forces Warriors to play all home games at Atsugi.

Atsugi White Dolphins

Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan

2004 record: 0-7 overall, 0-6 regular season. Only one of four teams not involved in chase for tightest regular-season finish in league history, lost playoff semifinal 44-3 to Yokosuka on Sept. 4 at Yokosuka Naval Base.

Head coach: Daniel Estrada, first season.

Number of returning players: 10.

Key players: Kenneth Morris, WR/CB; Roberto Chavez, QB/RB/FS; John Jones, FB/LB; Floyd White, FB/LB; James Leyva, WR/CB; Dee Wright, RB/LB; Jo Gramling, DE/LB; Efrain Rivera, QB; Mike Hodges, RB/FS; Fred Simms, OL/LB; Kevin Phillips, OL/DL; Kelian Malone, WR.

Base offense: Multiple three-back sets.

Base defense: 3-4, 4-4.

Outlook: Rebuilding. Numbers are way up this year, 33 players compared to 14 last year, when former coach Ray Shabazz struggled just to put a team on the field. White Dolphins already have won a preseason game, 13-7 over Yokota on May 28 on game’s final play. Should be marked improvement from a season ago.

The schedule ...

U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League

Saturday, June 11

Yokosuka at Yokota, ppd.

Atsugi at Misawa, 4 p.m.

Saturday, June 18

Yokota at Atsugi, 4 p.m.

Saturday, June 25

Misawa vs. Yokota at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, 3 p.m.

Yokosuka at Atsugi, 6 p.m.

Saturday, July 2

Yokosuka at Misawa, 2 p.m.

Saturday, July 9

Yokota at Atsugi, 6 p.m.

Misawa vs. Yokosuka at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility, 4 p.m.

Saturday, July 16

Yokosuka vs. Yokota at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility, 6 p.m.

Saturday, July 23

Atsugi vs. Yokosuka at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility, 4 p.m.

Yokota at Misawa, 2 p.m.

Saturday, July 30

Misawa at Atsugi, 6 p.m.

Yokota vs. Yokosuka at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility, 4 p.m.

End regular season

author picture
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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