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Junior guard Tom Gass and senior forward Mark Dixon, part of last year's Far East Boys Class AA Basketball Tournament runner-up Yokota, return to a Panthers squad hoping to take the final step and capture their first title in 30 years.
Junior guard Tom Gass and senior forward Mark Dixon, part of last year's Far East Boys Class AA Basketball Tournament runner-up Yokota, return to a Panthers squad hoping to take the final step and capture their first title in 30 years. (Courtesy of Val Gempis)

(See capsule summaries of the teams at end of story)

Players coming and going and the consequent constant need to rebuild teams is a way of life for Department of Defense Dependents Schools basketball coaches.

But some players may seem less easy to replace — such as junior forward Z’aire Jackson, who regularly totalled 30-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in pacing the Kadena Panthers to a Far East Class AA tournament title last year. Or Marcus Carson, who almost averaged a triple-double in pacing the Kubasaki Dragons to a fourth-place finish.

But Carson graduated and Jackson transferred to play his senior year in Alabama.

How do coaches Chris Sullivan of Kubasaki and Bob Bliss of Kadena replace such standouts?

“You don’t. He’s [Jackson] the kind of kid who comes around once every 10 years,” said Bliss, who also lost most of his backcourt and forward Gary Wright to transfers or graduation.

“That will be our challenge,” said Sullivan, whose Dragons will have three inside players 6 feet 3 or taller but who also must break in a new point guard.

Bliss said he believes this year’s team carries better balance, from the starting five to the 12th man off the bench.

“There’s not a lot of difference” among his charges, he said. “Nobody really stands out. I’m looking forward to this season. We have a lot of height, quickness and guys who are willing to learn. They have the potential. Developing that potential is another story.”

Varsity holdovers Anthony Soroka will start at point and Brandon Rice in the post. They’re joined by Marquis Newton, Alex Mierzejewski and Tony Watkins, who moved up from the junior varsity team.

Though not yet battle-tested, “you can develop experience as a season wears on. We have a good schedule,” Bliss said of a ledger that includes at least 12 games against Japanese teams, plus a four-game season series with always-tough Kubasaki.

Bliss said he also feels his holdover players “picked up a few things” from Jackson, who “brought such a dimension to that team and to the Pacific.”

Sullivan said he’ll begin the season with sophomore Michael Bennett running the point: “He has the same quickness Marcus had, just doesn’t have the experience.”

Bennett’s main responsibility certainly will be to get the ball inside to Sullivan’s tri-towers of 6-3 sophomore Tommy Fair and 6-3 senior Vance Maxey, who each transferred in, and 6-5 senior Stephen Thompson, who’s coming off a football ankle injury.

Thompson’s walking cast was removed on Monday.

“Once we get him back, we’ll be good,” Sullivan said.

But the Okinawa powers hardly are alone in hanging the “Help wanted; inquire within” shingle outside the coach’s office:

¶ Defending Class AA runner-up Yokota of Japan welcomes a gaggle of newcomers but none appear a ready replacement for graduated point guard Shawn Novak.

¶ Japan League and Kanto Plain co-champion Nile C. Kinnick still has two of its Big Three, Travis Ekmark and Paul Ergus, but filling athletic Leonard Lynce’s shoes may be a chore.

¶ Seoul American, minus much of the height that made it Class AA champion in 2003 and ’04, will rely on up-tempo play.

Despite it all, Bliss said, he remains “optimistic, absolutely.”

“This team is deeper and much stronger than last year,” he said. “I think you’ll see a more balanced Panthers team this year.”

Class AA boys basketball capsulesJapan

Yokota Panthers,Yokota Air Base

2004-05 record: 24-4, Far East Class AA tournament runner-up; 12-1, Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools co-champion; 9-2, Japan Basketball League runner-up.

Head coach: Paul Ettl, third season.

Key returnees: Cameron Cooper, Sr., G-F; Caiveon Thomas, Jr., F-C; Mark Dixon, Sr., F; Tom Gass, Jr., G; Andreas Cabral, Sr., G-F.

Key newcomers: Doug Bloom, Sr., F (transfer from Guam High); Jason Ricks, Sr., G; Chris Jones, Sr., C.

Outlook: Contending, if, Ettl says, “it all falls together.” Panthers must replace graduated point guard Shawn Novak; that’s “a work in progress,” according to Ettl. Plenty of experience but some of it in players coming in from elsewhere, and new players must meld with the core of five returning veterans.

Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils,Yokosuka Naval Base

2004-05 record: 24-4 overall; 8-1, Japan Basketball League champion; 12-1, Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools co-champion.

Head coach: Nathan Brewster, third season.

Key returnees: Travis Ekmark, Sr., SF (four-year starter); Paul Ergus, Sr., PF; Michael Motohashi, Sr., PG.

Key newcomers: Sean Neal, Jr., C; Victor Mason, Jr., SF.

Outlook: Rebuilding/reloading. Good core of returnees and true post presence in Neal, Motohashi has come out “on a mission,” Brewster says, but Red Devils must overcome loss of graduated Leonard Lynce and others who transferred.

Zama American Trojans,Camp Zama

2004-05 record: 10-22 overall, sixth place in Far East Class AA tournament; 3-6, 5th place in Japan Basketball League; 2-10, 8th place in Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools.

Head coach: Tom Allensworth, eighth season.

Key returnees: Wilberto Badillo, Jr., PG; Aaron Tabor, Jr., F; C.J. Leon Guerrero, Jr.; Eddy Kelley, Jr.; D.J. Lane, Jr.

Key newcomers: Ben Bishop, Jr., F; Carlos Walter, So, C.

Outlook: Rebuilding. A bit more athletic than last year's team, which should stay in most games, Allensworth says, if Trojans play good defense. But this team hasn't had true go-to scoring weapon since Corey Stacy two seasons ago.

Korea

Seoul American Falcons,Yongsan Garrison

2004-05 record: 36-17 overall, fifth place in Far East Class AA tournament; 14-0, Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference Division I champion.

Head coach: Steve Boyd, fifth season.

Key returnees: Jeremy "Ice" Christopher, Sr., F; Jamaal Mohn, Sr., PG; Andrew Luna, So., F; Justin Lee, Sr., PF-C; Allen Chin, Sr., PG: Tyras Miller, Jr., PG-SG; Chris Churchwell, Sr., SG; Chris Baker, Sr., SF-PF; Daniel Burns, So., G-F.

Key newcomers: Nick DeFrancisco, Sr., SG; Jeremy Mohn, So., G; Chris DeFrancisco, So.; Jordan O'Bryan, Fr.

Outlook: Contending for KAIAC title, possibly in Class AA. Smallest team in terms of height that Boyd has had at the Falcons' helm. Question is how quickly Falcons can become the full-court press-and-transition up-tempo team Boyd is trying to mold.

Okinawa

Kadena Panthers,Kadena Air Base

2004-05 record: 19-8 overall, defending Far East Class AA tournament champion; 2-2 Okinawa Activities Council; 8-1 Okinawa-American League.

Head coach: Robert Bliss, second season.

Key returnees: Anthony Soroka, Sr., G; Brandon Rice, Sr., F.

Key newcomers: Tony Watkins, Jr.; Marquis Newton, Sr.; Shmarua Phelps, Jr.; Jamil Barney, Fr.; Alex Mierzejewski, Jr., F-G.

Outlook: Rebuilding/reloading. How will Bliss replace departed comes-along-once-in-10-years Class AA MVP Z’aire Jackson, who transferred to Alabama? Underclass guards Darnell Womach and Jacob Love also left, as did post force Gary Wright. There are enough parts there to mold a contender but it may take time and losing Jackson may be too much to overcome.

Kubasaki Dragons,Camp Foster

2004-05 record: 19-7 overall, fourth place in Far East Class AA tournament; 2-2 Okinawa Activities Council; 7-1 Okinawa-American League.

Head coach: Chris Sullivan, fourth season.

Key returnees: Stephen Thompson, Sr., F; Reggie Pearson, Jr., G-F; Steven Ellis, Sr., G-F; Keith Sturdivant, Jr., F.

Key newcomers: Vance Maxey, Sr., F-C; Tommy Fair, So., F; Michael Bennett, Jr., PG; Rafael Mew, Sr., G-F.

Outlook: Contending. The addition of Maxey and Fair gives Sullivan an inside presence, three players 6 feet 3 or taller. Replacing graduated point guard Marcus Carson is a tall chore, but Bennett shows promise and quickness. Pearson and Ellis are solid contributors. Could challenge for Dragons' first Class AA crown in nine years.

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