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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Ever since September, Fernando Rico has repeated it like a mantra: “This is our year.”

For the E.J. King Cobras girls and boys basketball teams, it may just have to be.

Rico and the boys’ other four starters are seniors, with a couple more upperclassmen on the bench. The girls’ team is stocked with underclassmen, but nine of 10 Cobras girls will transfer or graduate.

“It’s now or never,” forward Marquis Singletary said.

“There’s a sense of urgency” about this season, guard Dominique Johnson added.

There’s also as much hunger as there is urgency to this basketball program, which has won five combined Class A titles, but none since the boys won in 2000.

Rico, Singletary and senior guard Kristia Suriben represent the crop of current Cobras stars who began working out with the high school teams when they were in the eighth grade at Sasebo Naval Base.

Thus, “it would be nice to leave with that championship,” Suriben said.

From the depths of a 2003-04 season that saw their squad finish 1-21, Suriben and the girls won their first DODDS-Japan title a season ago, going 27-5 but failing to place in the Far East Class A Tournament. The boys went 20-9 last year, but finished fourth in Class A.

So far this season, the Cobras boys are 9-5, including four victories in the past five games. The girls, paced by Suriben’s 12 points and six steals per game, are just a shade behind their pace of last year at 10-4.

Among those victories were buzzer-beaters at the expense of Kinnick here last weekend. Keith Williams’ bank shot gave the Cobras boys a 59-57 victory Friday; Suriben’s three-pointer at the horn on Saturday helped E.J. King edge the Red Devils girls 41-39.

“I’m surprised. I didn’t think we would do this well,” said Suriben’s sister Rizalina, a sophomore who’s averaging nine points and seven steals per game. “But we’ve proven ourselves and we’ve improved as a team.”

The girls are coached by Michael Seitz, a nine-year veteran of the Cobras’ girls volleyball bench trying his hand at hoops for the first time. And most of the rest of the team is “new to the game,” Rizalina Suriben said.

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to get better as a team. The rest of us have picked up and learned and improved faster than I thought we would,” she said.

Seitz has scoured the Internet and libraries for basketball resources and is “relying on Kristia and Riza to help. If I make a mistake, they correct me,” Seitz said.

The key focus, members of both teams said, is taking things one game at a time, instead of trying to conquer the whole mountain at once.

“The main thing is getting that ‘W’ no matter how we do it,” Rico said.

Because of all those heartbreaks, “we’ve all become smarter. More mature,” Rico said.

People might look at the Cobras’ physical size and see a team that averages as much as six inches per player shorter than their opponents.

“It’s not all about size,” senior Blake Romero said. “We lack height, but our speed and quickness makes up for that.”

While acknowledging they want to capture the Class A gold, players on both teams insist they’re not looking that far ahead yet.

“You’d lose your focus on what’s happening now,” Kristia Suriben said.

Still, the notion of exiting E.J. King having matched the Cobras’ feats of 1996-97, the last time each team won a Class A title in the same school year, is an appetizing one.

“We’ve been preparing our whole high school careers for this. This is the moment,” Rico said.

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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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