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Draonne Johnson, Mark Bote and Keith Sampson remember February’s heartbreak as if it only happened yesterday.

The E.J. King Cobras were within a whisker of capturing their third Far East High School Boys Class A Basketball Tournament title. Instead, they watched it slip away 60-53 against St. Paul Christian of Guam. It was the Cobras’ second runner-up finish in three years.

The three seniors hope this season will have a happier ending, said first-year coach Daren Schuettpelz.

“This is their last year here. They really want it,” said Schuettpelz, the team’s fifth coach in as many seasons.

The painful defeat in last year’s tournament Class A “made them hungry,” he said. “They’ve talked about it, being so close. They know they have the ability to get there.”

If the Cobras are to make it back to center court — they broke out of the gate with a 3-0 start two weekends ago — they will have a more guard-oriented look than the team that relied on the size and inside play of 2004 graduates Andrew Stephens and Chris Years.

Reigning Class A co-MVP Johnson headlines the squad, supported by Bote and Sampson, one of the few sizeable Cobras.

The lack of size “is an issue,” Schuettpelz said. “We’re trying to do it with speed … the guys who aren’t that tall are really aggressive.”

The veteran trio is joined by a swell of incoming freshmen who show potential, Schuettpelz said.

“I like it so far,” he said. “We have some rough spots to polish out, some ball-handling issues, offensive rebounds because of lack of height. But … I’ve not seen leaders so positive, who provide constructive criticism to the freshmen. And they click.”

The Cobras will face stiff competition from their DODDS opponents:

¶ Korea’s Osan American Cougars also lost three stars but still have plenty components of the team that finished third last year.

“It definitely is a big loss for the team,” said new coach Bruce Collins, whose squad won Far East in 2003. “I look at it as the other players needing to step up and take the starting roles.”

¶ Taegu American could be a contender this year, and solid for years to come, as first-year coach Chance Wilson welcomes five strong returning contributors and works with a large freshman contingent.

¶ Pusan American also returns a veteran core. Coach Phillip Loyd says he expects his Panthers “to surprise everyone” they play. “If we peak at the right time, this will be a special year for some fine young men,” he said.

¶ Matthew C. Perry, which went winless in Japan League play last year, already has won two league games. Nate Albia may be gone and size is lacking, but the rest of the lineup returns under new coaches Kostas Lazarou and Harrel Bellous.

“Perry has a better team than they’ve had in a couple of years,” Schuettpelz said.

But no team has more incentive than E.J. King, which is determined to finish the job they began in February.

“That’s a real drive for them,” Schuettpelz said. “If they keep playing and improving as they are, and they keep that drive and keep focused on the goal, I see us challenging for the top spots.”

A look at the teams ...

Korea

Osan American Cougars,Osan Air Base, South Korea

Coach: Bruce Collins, first season.

Last season: Overall, 21-7; league, 12-4; second in Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference; third in Far East Class A Tournament.

Key returners: Darnell “Chris” Durham, senior, guard-forward; Brandon Holling, junior, forward; Van Hauter, senior, point guard; Carlos Albadalejo, sophomore, point guard.

Key newcomers: Ben Kretz, senior, center; Jason Hechtman, sophomore, power forward; Steven Kincaid, senior, shooting guard; Corey Black, sophomore, guard-forward.

Outlook: The cupboard is hardly bare for Collins. The Cougars will be competitive.

Taegu American Warriors,Camp George, South Korea

Coach: Chance Wilson, first season.

Last season: Overall, 8-14; league, 3-9, seventh in Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference; seventh in Far East Class A (small schools) Tournament.

Key returners: Rick Oberle, senior, center; Wendell Espy, junior, guard; Duri Balat, junior, forward; Kenny Harris, sophomore, point guard; Sydney Washington, sophomore.

Key newcomers: Mychal McGee, freshman, guard; Daniel Pressley, freshman, forward; Trey Washington, freshman, center.

Outlook: Building for the future. Plenty of returning talent combined with underclassmen oozing potential. Lacking experience top to bottom at the moment, but Wilson feels the Warriors will get stronger over the next three years.

Pusan American Panthers,Camp Hialeah, South Korea

Coach: Phillip Loyd, third season.

Last season: Overall, 10-12; league, 4-5; fourth in Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference; fifth in Far East Class A (small schools) Tournament.

Key returners: James Edwards, junior, forward; Moses Joh, junior, guard; David Ludwig, senior; Robert Smith, senior; Detlef Loyd, junior; Chris Moye, sophomore.

Key newcomers: Synge O’Leary, senior; Kuba Niemaszek, senior.

Outlook: Panthers could be one of the surprise teams of the league and perhaps the Class A tournament as well, with a good core of experienced players.

Japan

E.J. King Cobras,Sasebo Naval Base, Japan

Coach: Daren Schuettpelz, first season.

Last season: Overall, 21-13; league, 7-7; fourth in Japan Basketball League; second in Far East Class A (small schools) Tournament.

Key returners: Mark Bote, senior, guard; Draonne Johnson, senior, guard (reigning Class A tournament co-MVP); Keith Sampson, senior, forward; Rashaad Clark, sophomore, guard; Nathan Ambrose, sophomore, guard; Jasper Diaz, junior, guard.

Key newcomers: Keith Williams, freshman, forward; Gabriel Singletary, freshman, forward; Fernando Rico, freshman, guard; Dominique Johnson, freshman, guard; Rodney Johnson, freshman, guard; Stephen Morphis, freshman, guard; Ricky Vance, freshman, guard; Javon Mercene, senior, guard; Aaron Poindexter, senior, guard.

Outlook: Contending. Short on height, so Schuettpelz plans to compensate with speed, pressure and quickness. Returning seniors Bote, Johnson and Sampson came within a whisker last year of the Cobras’ third Class A title and want to go out with a championship.

Matthew C. Perry Samurai,Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan

Last season: Overall, 5-23; league, 0-16; last in Japan Basketball League; eighth in Far East Class A (small schools) Tournament.

Coaches: Kostas Lazarou and Harrel Bellous, first season.

Key returners: Emphrem Hardin, senior, guard; Kevin Lee, senior, guard-forward; Brandon Scott, junior, guard-forward; Kris Lazarou, sophomore, guard.

Outlook: Gone is the talented Nate Albia, but that should clear the way for core of returnees with good potential who’ll see more playing time and more touches this season. Just two weeks into season, Samurai have two JBL wins — more than all of last season.

Migrated
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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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