IKEGO HEIGHTS NAVAL HOUSING FACILITY, Japan — Robert Cole is used to this. So are his Yokosuka Seahawks.

In the past eight years, Yokosuka has been won the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League championship seven times, falling short only in 2005.

Now, as defending champions once more, Cole is all too aware of the bull’s-eye on his back and those of his players.

“Everybody always comes after us. Everybody guns for Yokosuka, brings their A-game for Yokosuka,” Cole said. “We’ve had a really competitive league.”

Still, Cole said he feels confident in the Seahawks’ ability to scale the title heights yet again. The keys: Experience, and the presence of veterans such as reigning league Defensive Player of the Year Dayon Banks and veteran center Tim Graves.

Cole refers to Banks, a cornerback who led the league with 109 tackles last season, as a “bona fide leader. He has so much heart and leadership. He’ll put the team on his shoulders and carry it.”

Graves has suited up for both the Seahawks and the now-defunct Greyhawks senior team since 1991. “He’s Mister Consistency,” Cole said. “He anchors the line, it runs good. We’ve always had running teams. Play to our strengths.”

The Seahawks begin defense of their title on Sunday at Atsugi or June 9 at Misawa. Misawa opens the league season at home against Yokota at 6 p.m. Saturday, the start of the eighth campaign since the USFJ-AFL formed out of the remnants of the old USFJ league in 2000.

Yokosuka was supposed to play at Atsugi on Saturday, but that game was postponed due to field availability issues; Atsugi Naval Air Facility is hosting an event at Reid Memorial Stadium that night. League officials are trying to reschedule for Sunday at Reid.

The league has fielded four teams since 2004, with the two-time Okinawa Football League champion Kadena Dragons on board the last two years as a non-league entry scheduled for seven games against USFJ-AFL teams, three at home and four on the road.

After 10 years as the Marauders club team, Misawa now falls under the umbrella of the base’s 35th Services, and has taken the name Jets, the base’s original mascot. “They’re now a part of our varsity sports program,” athletic director Jason Vandenberg said.

The last Misawa Jets team to take the field was in 1988 in the old USFJ league.

The usual issue that all teams face each season is military commitments. At any one time during the season, coaches said, they may be missing from nine to 15 players.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” Misawa coach Dwight Abel said. “We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

The Jets begin the season strong defensively but rebuilding on offense. Likewise, Yokota brings back precious few returners, but is hopeful of big things from all-purpose back Kevin Graves, who’ll play safety, return kicks and receive.

“He’s the key to the team,” coach Christopher Bell said. “How he plays is how we go.”

And Atsugi, which caught fire with two late regular-season victories after not winning once since the 2003 season, is hopeful the momentum can carry over to this season. “We hope so,” first-year coach Robert Sanders 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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