They may be the best team to never win a Far East High School Girls Class A Volleyball Tournament title.

Three times, the Taegu American Warriors have finished third, including the past two years, and once they even made it to the final, falling to Christian Academy In Japan in the 1999 championship match.

Taegu coach David Hagander hopes this is the year his team takes that final step.

“We’re definitely a much-improved team from last year,” Hagander said Friday, two days before his team traveled to Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, where E.J. King School hosts the tournament for the first time.

Long on returning experienced players, the Warriors will take the court with strong middle hitting from Kelli Cox and Lynette Grant and veteran All-Tournament seniors Ashley Gooch and Christina Wojtonik.

“They’re a year better, a year more mature,” Hagander said.

What might have been the missing ingredient the past couple of years, and what might put them over the top, Hagander said, is sophomore setter Lindsey Jackson, who will transfer to Aviano Air Base, Italy, next year.

“I e-mailed the coach there, and I told him that her technical skills are very strong, but above that is her knowledge of the game, and even above that is her character, maturity and leadership abilities,” Hagander said.

“She’s really exactly what this team needed.”

The presence of Jackson, who was named Best Setter for third-place Taegu in last weekend’s Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference tournament in Seoul, “lit a fire under the team, perhaps,” Hagander said.

“The Ashley Gooches and Christina Wojtoniks have been with the team for a long time, they’re the rock of the team,” he said. “But Lindsey showed up and expected the best out of everybody, at every practice, at every game.”

Hagander has little doubt that his Warriors can compete and beat their Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific rivals at Sasebo.

“The big question is the international schools, which we’ve not seen and know nothing about,” Hagander said.

That would include the Notre Dame Royals, in the tournament for the first time and hailing from the ultra-competitive Guam Interscholastic League. Along with them are 2002 champion Morrison Christian Academy of Taiwan and defending champion Faith Academy of the Philippines.

“I’m nervous no matter who we play,” Hagander said. “Osan [American] hasn’t beaten us, but we’re always close. It’s always a matter of a couple of points. And we’ve lost games to Pusan [American].”

Consistency, as is always the case in volleyball, will likely be key to the Warriors’ fortunes, one opposing KAIAC coach said.

“It remains to be seen if they can maintain team chemistry and focus on the opponent on the other side of the net,” said Denny Hilgar of Seoul American, which beat Taegu in three tough matches this season.

The Warriors beat eventual KAIAC tournament champion Seoul Foreign, which “proved their mettle” as a team to be reckoned with, Hilgar said.

“I think this year’s team on paper is as strong as has ever come out of Taegu,” Hilgar said. “I think they could do very well.”

The fact that the tournament moves away from Taegu, its home since its inception in 1998, “is a refreshing change” and could even further the Warriors’ chances, Hagander said.

“There will probably be more team unity, traveling and working together the whole time,” he said. “A week of volleyball, you have to stay focused for a long time. I think it will help us.”

Far East Girls Class A volleyball tournament

Proponent: Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific.

Dates: Nov. 8-12, 2004.

Sites: E.J. King High School Gym and Fleet Gym, Sasebo Naval Base, Japan.

Host: E.J. King High School.

Participating schools: Notre Dame Royals, Talofofo, Guam; Taegu American Warriors, Camp George, South Korea; Morrison Christian Academy Mustangs, Taichung, Taiwan; Osan American Cougars, Osan Air Base, South Korea; Faith Academy Vanguards, Rizal, Philippines; E.J. King Cobras, Sasebo Naval Base, Japan; Pusan American Panthers, Camp Hialeah, South Korea; Fukuoka International Sharks, Fukuoka, Japan; Matthew C. Perry Samurai, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.

Returning All-Tournament players: Christina Wojtonik, Kelli Cox, Taegu; Mycal Horton, Pusan; Margaret Nurse, Kara Baccus, Osan.

Format: Single round-robin play, Monday through Wednesday morning, all nine teams in one pool playing two-set matches for purposes of seeding into double-elimination bracket. Double-elimination play, best-of-five matches from Wednesday afternoon to championship match Friday.

Schedule of events: Opening ceremony 8:30 a.m. Monday at E.J. King Gym. Round-robin matches at 10 a.m. Monday through 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, followed by skills competitions and start of double-elimination play at 4 p.m. Championship match at 11 a.m. Friday, with second “if necessary” match at 1:30 p.m. Awards ceremony at 5 p.m. Friday at E.J. King Gym.

DODDS-Pacific teams to watch

Taegu American (coach David Hagander, second year) — Most experienced Warriors bunch since 1999 team that reached Center Court. Kelli Cox and Lynette Grant bang well in the middle, Ashley Gooch and Christina Wojtonik complement them well and sophomore setter Lindsey Jackson provides on-court leadership. Time to take step above third place the last two years.

Osan American (coach Brian Swenty, second year) — When Margaret Nurse is on, the 6-foot-2 junior is unstoppable. Kara Baccus, Sarah Rodriguez, Aimee Parker and Jannel Acoba, among others, give strong support. Not at same level as Taegu, but a certain Final Four prospect.

E.J. King (coach Michael Seitz, sixth year) — The usual collection of sub-5-foot mighty mites who somehow elevate at the net and cover the court like a blanket, trying to frustrate the opponent into mistakes. A tall banger in the middle wouldn’t hurt, but Cobras should be competitive.

Pusan American (coach Laird Small, fourth year) — A notch or two below the others, but a squad boasting senior outside hitter Aimee Brown, senior hitter Mycal Horton and potential freshman star Shabraya Hayes could surprise some folks.

Matthew C. Perry (coach Thomas Herrmann, first year) — Task of rebuilding continues for the Samurai, with a new coach and youngsters new to the school and the team. Cristina Sindac and Shane Soriano, among others, have nothing to lose by giving it their all.

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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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