Far East basketball preview: Okinawa teams, Seoul American still look like the class of AA
To paraphrase a Shakira tune, banners don’t lie.
Since 2003, the battle for Far East Class AA basketball supremacy has resembled a tug-of-war between Seoul American and teams from Okinawa.
Nine of the 10 banners hang at Seoul American, Kadena or Kubasaki high schools. And all indications in the first three weeks of the season is that the rivalry is back in full swing:
Defending Class AA girls champion Kadena downed Seoul American 47-40 to win last week’s Hong Kong International School Holiday Tournament, much as they did in February’s Class AA semifinal.Defending Class AA boys champion Kubasaki didn’t fare as well, falling 68-66 to Seoul American at Hong Kong in a rematch of last year’s Class AA final, won by Kubasaki.A preview of this season’s Class AA tournament finals? Or at the very least one of the Pacific’s most competitive rivalries?
“It’s developed into one,” Seoul American boys coach Steve Boyd said, pointing to coaching continuity, talent and strong programs. “We have the banners. We know what it takes to win them.”
Seoul American’s boys won in 2003 and ’04 and lost in the finals the past two years. The Falcons’ girls took the gold in 2005 and ’06. Kadena’s boys won in 2005; the girls won in 2003 and last February. Kubasaki’s girls earned top honors in 2004 and the boys won the title in February.
It’s almost as if “the three of us across the board look at each other and say, ‘It will be one or two of the three of us, and everybody else takes what’s left,’ ” Boyd said.
And it’s not just basketball. In all sports the last five years, Kadena leads the way with 17 Far East titles. Seoul American is next with 12 and Kubasaki has earned nine.
“Maybe it’s the size of the schools. Maybe it’s the service rivalries. But it’s there,” said Kadena girls coach Ken Hudson.
To carry that rivalry through and reach center court on Feb. 23, though, there is the matter of the regular season, which begins in earnest this weekend.
The Japan Basketball League boys title chase could become a horse race between Anthony Caple, Sean Wise at Zama American and Riki Byrnes, Anthony McNeill at Yokota.
Yokota’s girls possess the quickness to make a run, but height is a question.
Seoul American’s teams should make a run at Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference titles; eight of 10 players who suited up for last year’s Far East tournament return to each squad.
Chris Cooke, Jacorian Callier and Kubasaki should have a battle with Jamil Barney and Kadena on Okinawa. Seven of 10 players return for Kadena’s girls, and the team hopes to add to its run of three straight series victories.
All that leads to the Class AA tournaments scheduled for Feb. 18-23, the boys again at Seoul American and the girls once more at Kadena.
Seoul American, Kadena and Kubasaki boys will see each other once more before Far East, playing against Kinnick, St. Mary’s and Yokota in the 2nd New Year Classic at Yokota in January.
“The three of us can beat each other on any given day,” Boyd said of his team, Kadena and Kubasaki.
On the girls side, Kadena’s and Seoul American’s girls “are head and shoulders above” the field, Boyd said. “Talent and depth. That was pretty evident at Hong Kong.”
But the defending Class AA champion teams feel much needs to be done before they can count on another trip to the finals.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Hudson said of his Panthers. “We have five seniors who’ve been with the program and that experience allowed us to win at Hong Kong. We’re not yet ready for a tournament the magnitude of Far East, but we’ll get there.”
Conditioning and mental toughness are areas in which Kubasaki coach Jon Fick feels his boys need to improve.
“We never did close out one game” at Hong Kong, Fick said. “Our guys are really athletic. We’re one of the most athletic teams out here. The kids know what they have to do, work on conditioning and being mentally tough when they’re tired.”
Class AA boys team capsulesSeoul American FalconsLast year’s record – 37-15, 10-1 KAIAC Division I (second); 2nd at Class AA tournament.Coach – Steve Boyd, sixth season.Key returners – Daniel Burns, Sr., G; Chris Churchwell, Sr., G; Andrew Luna, Sr., F-G; Willie Brown, Jr., F-C-G; Raidion Fails, Jr., F-C; Joe McLean, Jr., F; Chris DeFrancisco, Sr., F-G; Shawn Grandy, Sr., F; Johnnie Hickson, Jr., G.Key newcomers – Marcus Thompson, Jr.; Demetrius Corbin, Jr.Outlook – Contending. Eight of 10 varsity players returning, best percentage in Boyd’s tenure, and he has a mix of juniors he’ll be keeping into next season. He calls it the best team he’s had since his 2004 champion team, not as big but quicker. “Depth, quickness, speed, experience and desire. I really like the team chemistry. Great kids with super attitudes.” Will host Class AA tournament for fourth time in six years.
Kadena PanthersLast year’s record – 25-12, 4-0 vs. Kubasaki in OAC; 3rd in Class AA tournament.Coach – Robert Bliss, fifth season.Key returners – Jamil Barney, Jr., F; Josh Greggs, Jr., G; Damico Hill, Jr., F.Key newcomers – Roosevelt Payne, Sr., G; Greg Rogers, Jr., F; Matt Hinkle, Sr., F.Outlook – Contending. Barney is the rock around which this team will build. Greggs brings experience to the guard position. Athletic Payne will make major contribution.
Kubasaki DragonsLast year’s record – 17-13, 0-4 vs. Kadena in OAC season series; defending Class AA tournament champion.Coach – Jon Fick, second season.Key returners – Chris Cooke, Sr., SG; Michael Bennett, Sr., PG; Jacorian Callier, Jr., F; Tommy Fair, Sr., F; Rodney Brown, Sr., F.Key newcomers – James Smiley, Sr., G; Kardai Porter, Sr., G; Kelvin Hughes, Jr., G; Devin Roseboro, Jr., G.Outlook – Contending. Athletic, plenty of height, speed and quickness. Must replace departed point guard Quinton Mason’s leadership. Bennett still a question mark with shoulder injury suffered in football. Could return to Class AA championship game. “Past tournament success has naturally carried over high expectations of this team,” Fick said.
Zama American TrojansLast year’s record – 34-2, 13-0 Kanto (champion), 12-0 Japan Basketball League (champion), 4th at Class AA tournament.Coach – Tom Allensworth, 13th season.Key returners – Anthony Caple, Sr., PG; Sean Wise, Sr., SG; Nelson Bishop, Jr., F; Ken Johnson, Sr., F-G; Ryan Rebujio, So., F-G.Key newcomer – Zach Bosch, Jr., F-G (transfer from States).Outlook – Reloading. Not as strong as last year’s best team in school history. Can score in bunches. “We will go as far as our defense allows us,” Allensworth said.
Yokota PanthersLast year’s record – 27-10, 9-3 Kanto (second), 8-4 JBL (second).Coach – Paul Ettl, fifth season.Key returners – Riki Byrnes, Sr., F; Anthony McNeill, Sr., G.Key newcomers – DeEric Harvin, So., G; Bradley Forbes, So., F-G; Antony Phillips, Sr., F.Outlook – Rebuilding on paper, but Yokota considers itself “always contending,” Ettl said, pointing to the leadership of Byrnes and McNeill. “That’s a big intangible. We might sneak up on somebody.”
Kinnick Red DevilsLast year’s record – 9-17, 2-9 Kanto (seventh), 5-8 JBL (fourth).Coach – Michael Adair, first season.Key returners – Sam Green, Sr., F-C; T.J. Jones Jr., Sr., F-C; Lawyer Anthony Lewis, Sr., F-G; Brandon Williams, Jr., G.Key newcomers – William Traufler, Jr., G; Trujuan Quinn, Jr., F-C; R. Keith Ross, Jr., F-G (transfer from Tennessee).Outlook – Rebuilding but “could contend depending on how much they can learn,” Adair said. Emphasis here will be building “fundamental skills necessary to compete successfully. They’re good athletes but they must learn to play smart basketball as a team.”
Edgren EaglesLast year’s record – 10-12, 4-8 JBL (fifth).Coach – Michael Gros, first season.Key returners – Zach Latimore, Sr., F-G; Matt Salazar, Jr., G.Key newcomers – Brandon Bledsoe, Jr., G; Nate Ong, So., G; Johnell Alexander, Jr., G; John Benavidez, So., F-G; Jacque Moton, Sr., G.Outlook – Rebuilding. “We have a lot of new talent to work with,” Gros said, adding he’ll work with his two assistants “to unify our team.”
Class AA girls team capsulesSeoul American FalconsLast year’s record – 24-1, 11-0 KAIAC Division I (champion), 3rd at Class AA tournament.Coach – Charlotte Hicks, 23rd (and final) season.Key returners – Avianca Manning, Sr., F; Angye Law, Sr., G; Erica Anglade, Sr., F-G; Devanee Taylor, So., F-C; Alyssa Gray, Sr., G; Chrystal Pryear, So., G; Jessie Bolander, Jr., F; Jennifer Simmons, Sr., F-C.Key newcomers – Veronica Gashley, Jr., F; Katie Bolander, Fr., F; Liz Gleaves, Fr., F-G.Outlook – Contending. Like Boyd’s boys, eight of 10 varsity players return, including the entire starting lineup. Depth at all positions, height, speed and quickness make Falcons a threat to unseat defending Class AA champion Kadena.
Kadena PanthersLast year’s record – 27-4, 4-0 vs. Kubasaki in OAC; defending Class AA tournament champion.Coach – Ken Hudson, sixth season.Key returners – Brittney Gilliam, Sr., F; Brooke Hudson, Sr., G; Monica Hayes, Sr., G; Stephanie Eik, Sr., G; Danielle Mefford, Sr., G; Aja’ Walker, So., F.Key newcomers – Javinia Riddick, So., G; Jasmine Baker, So., G; Samantha Canty, Jr., G.Outlook – Contending. “Achieving excellence requires belief and vision. This team will work hard to defend the Far East championship and keep it at Kadena,” Hudson said.
Kubasaki DragonsLast year’s record – 15-17, 0-4 vs. Kadena in OAC.Coach – Robert Driggs, 17th season.Key returners – Ashley Parmer, Sr., G; Sarah Brubaker, Sr., C; Gaby Falco, So., F.Outlook – Rebuilding. Freshmen and sophomores make up 70 percent of the roster, one of Driggs’ most stern rebuilding tasks in his nearly two decades with the Dragons. All will depend on how quickly the youngsters develop.
Yokota PanthersLast year’s record – 24-6, 11-2 Kanto (second), 12-2 JBL (second), 4th at Class AA tournament.Coach – Ricardo Cabral, sixth season.Key returners – Lauryn Thomas, Jr., F; Amy Edenfield, Sr., G; Kimberly Wright, Sr., C; Stephanie Dolby, Sr., G; Shaneka Booth, Sr., G; Anya Brown, Jr., F; Angelica Sanders, Jr. G.Key newcomers – Charae Caldwell, Fr., F; Jontyce Howard, So., G.Outlook – Contending. Lost four seniors, but plenty of returning players “with the right attitude, hard work and unity,” Cabral said of a guard-oriented team “that must do a lot of hustling to make up for our lack of rebounders.”
Kinnick Red DevilsLast year’s record – 14-17, 7-7 Kanto (fourth), 6-8 JBL (fourth).Coach – Henry Falk, ninth season.Key returners – Carl’Meisha Wourman, Sr., G; Yasmine Espree, Jr., G; Deborah Holland, Sr., F.Key newcomers – Megumi Nelson, So., F-G; Mary Niemeyer, So., F-G; Deana Hardison, Fr., G; Shannon Jackson, Fr., F.Outlook – Rebuilding. “Inexperienced, but eager to learn,” Falk said, “and with their athletic ability and skill development may be able to surprise a few teams later this season.”
Edgren EaglesLast year’s record – 5-17, 3-12 JBL (fifth).Coach – Sarah Richardson, 18th season.Key performers – Britni Bledsoe, Fr., F-C; Vanessa Mandelin, Sr., F-C; Jocelyn Mitchell, So., F-C; Courtney Kilday, Jr., G; Abigail Burke, Sr., G; Krystal Boothman, Sr., F.Outlook – Rebuilding. Replacing four-year starting point guard Krystine Horsley will be a chore. Bledsoe and Mandelin headline a group of players with ability, but lacking
experience.Zama American TrojansLast year’s record – 5-20, 5-9 Kanto (seventh), 0-9 JBL (sixth).Coaches – Parish and Veronica Jones, fifth season.Key returners – Elizabeth Powell, Jr., G; Brittanie Williams, Sr., F.Key newcomer – Aubrey Ashliman, So., G.Outlook – Rebuilding. Just three returners, two starters, and just four seniors among an underclass-laden unit. If Ashliman’s basketball skills can match what her soccer feet can do (50 goals as a freshman last season), Trojans will benefit resoundingly.