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Behind a gaggle of experienced veteran guards and a strong perimeter game, E.J. King’s boys and girls teams have tag-teamed on one of the most successful basketball seasons in school history.

Junior Kristia Suriben and the Cobras girls soared to a 23-1 record, second-best in Japan, and the school’s first DODDS-Japan Basketball League title. Keith Williams, Marquis Singletary, Fernando Rico and the Cobras boys went a more modest 15-6 and took third in the JBL, the team’s best finish since finishing second in the Far East Class A tournament three years ago.

The Cobras haven’t reached such heights since 1997, when both teams won the Class A tournament.

If they are to sweep this season, they’ll have to clear major international-school obstacles.

E.J. King’s boys must get through two-time defending champion Faith Academy (27-1) and two-time reigning MVP Kirk Long. The Cobras’ girls face double the trouble — Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools champion Sacred Heart (16-0) and Faith Academy (26-7), the tournament runner-up the past two years.

While the mountain might seem high, coaches Bridget Vertin and Daren Schuettpelz feel with the right amount of effort, any summit can be conquered.

“No team is unbeatable. But everybody’s gotta show up for that one,” said Schuettpelz, who is in his third season with the Cobras boys.

The team has put a “top priority” on beating Faith, Schuettpelz said. And the Cobras won’t wait long to meet the Vanguards — they face Faith in their second game of Monday’s pool play.

“So far, they seem focused,” Schuettpelz said, adding that the smaller Cobras have put an emphasis in practice on stopping Faith’s inside game and on fundamentals. And hope springs eternal in Cobra Nation — in 1997, E.J. King won the title by upsetting a Faith team considered by many to be unbeatable.

“We have the talent to upset them in the opening round, and see if we can carry that momentum through,” Schuettpelz said.

Despite that optimism, one DODDS coach whose team has played against Faith this season says beating the Vanguards may be a “tough job.”

“They have height, inside game, discipline and they play good defense,” Kadena coach Robert Bliss said. “They’d be a force to reckon with” in the Class AA tournament.

Yokota coach Paul Ettl, whose team played E.J. King four times this season, feels the Cobras are “more physical than their size indicates” but could be vulnerable to a taller team. “A team that shoots threes won’t beat a team that shoots layups,” he said. “In that tournament, it comes down to defense, especially against a taller team.”

Like the boys, the Cobras girls will come up against one of those vaunted rivals right off the bat — their first pool play game is against Sacred Heart, and Faith is also in their pool. Vertin didn’t seem to be especially worried.

“You have to beat those teams anyway,” she said. “You have to be willing to play and beat those teams, in your pool or not. It doesn’t matter who’s in our pool.”

If anything, playing against those stronger teams early on is an advantage, she said. “We’ll see their strengths and weaknesses and adapt and adjust our play for the rest of the tournament.”

Nile C. Kinnick coach Henry Falk, whose team faced Sacred Heart and E.J. King, feels the Symbas boast better balance than the Cobras, though stopping Suriben will be quite a handful.

The Symbas “run under control, they anticipate passes, they do a good job of rebounding,” Falk said. “They get to the rebounding position so well. They have size.”

But how to stop Suriben? Falk feels playing her man-to-man might make her weary, so “her shots will be off and she’ll make some mistakes,” he said. “It has to be a fast, aggressive girl. You put her on 22 (Suriben) and make sure you rebound.”

Minimizing mistakes and treating Sacred Heart and Faith as if it’s “any other game,” coupled with a strong dose of heart, might carry the day for the Cobras, Vertin said. There’s also a strong sense of urgency — six Cobras are seniors, and Vertin transfers in June.

“We’re going to play with a whole lot of heart,” she said. “It means a lot to them.”

Far East Class A basketball tournament capsulesBoysDates: Feb. 19-23.Host school: Matthew C. Perry H.S., Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.Site: Ironworks Fitness and Sports Center, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station.Participants: Osan American Cougars, Osan Air Base, South Korea; St. Paul Christian Warriors, Tamuning, Guam (’06 runner-up); Morrision Christian Academy Mustangs, Taichung, Taiwan; E.J. King Cobras, Sasebo Naval Base, Japan; Taegu American Warriors, Camp George, South Korea; Matthew C. Perry Samurai, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan; Yongsan International-Seoul Guardians; Faith Academy Vanguards, Rizal, Philippines (two-time defending champion); International Christian-Uijongbu Eagles, Uijeongbu, South Korea; Centennial Christian Lions, Seoul; Korea International Phoenix, Pangyo, South Korea.Returning All-Far East players: Kirk Long, Faith Academy (two-time selection), Wil Galbreath, Taegu American; Joseph Choi, Yongsan International-Seoul.Format: Single round-robin, 11 teams in two pools, one of six teams, the other of five, first two days. Modified double-elimination playoffs with consolation, all 11 teams eligible, last three days.Schedule: Opening ceremony 7 a.m. Monday, Ironworks. First games, 8 a.m Monday. Playoffs begin, 8 a.m. Wednesday. Championship, 9:45 a.m. Friday, second game if necessary at 11:30 a.m. DODDS vs. international schools All-Star game, All-Stars vs. coaches challenge and awards ceremony after championship. Skills competitions, three-point long-distance shootout and free-throw competition.Awards: Most Valuable Player, 10 All-Tournament team selections, Team Sportsmanship Award.

GirlsDates: Feb. 19-23.Host: Taegu American School, Camp George, South Korea.Sites: Taegu American School, Camp George, and Kelly Fitness & Sports Center, Camp Walker, South Korea.Participants: International School of the Sacred Heart Symbas, Tokyo; Taegu American Warriors, Camp George, South Korea (defending champion); Faith Academy Vanguards, Rizal, Philippines (’06 runner-up); Osan American Cougars, Osan Air Base, South Korea; St. Paul Christian Warriors, Tamuning, Guam; Morrison Christian Academy Mustangs, Taichung, Taiwan; E.J. King Cobras, Sasebo Naval Base, South Korea; Matthew C. Perry Samurai, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan; Yongsan International-Seoul Guardians; Korea International Phoenix, Pangyo, South Korea.Returning All-Far East players: Leyna Arbour, Sacred Heart (two-time selection); Kristia Suriben, E.J. King (two-time selection); Yudia Johnson, E.J. King; Crystal Ballentine, Faith Academy; Cristina Sindac, Matthew C. Perry.Format: Single round-robin, 10 teams split into two pools of five each. All teams qualify for modified double-elimination playoff with consolation bracket.Schedule: Opening ceremony 7 p.m., Fellowship Hall, Camp Walker. Round-robin games begin at 9 a.m. Monday, continue until 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Playoffs begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday and continue until championship at noon p.m. Friday, with second game if necessary at 2 p.m. All-Star Game, DODDS-Pacific vs. international school players, at 4 p.m. Closing ceremony to follow. Skills competition, three-point shootout and foul shooting, 9 a.m.-noon Wednesday.Awards: Most Valuable Player, 12-player All-Tournament team, top two finishers in skills competitions, Team Sportsmanship Award.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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