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The faces may change. The system and championship ways stay the same.

That’s coach Steve Boyd’s philosophy as his Seoul American Falcons boys basketball squad opens defense of its Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference and two straight Far East Class AA Tournament titles.

“The Falcons are always a contender, never a pretender,” said Boyd, in his fourth season at the Falcons’ helm. “As far as we’re concerned, the championship team will come through Seoul American. And we have the rings and banners to prove it.”

Such bravado might belie a Falcons team that has lost all but one starter from its brilliant two-year run, in which it went 72-12, led by 2003 MVP Nino Etienne and 2004 MVP Jake Abramowitz.

Only junior guard Jay Higgins remains from those lineups. But Boyd feels he has plenty of talent to plug in, from the last two years’ bench or coming off the Patriot Express.

If nothing else, the Falcons have the height: Sophomore Anthony Gatlin stands 6 feet 6, Higgins and junior transfer Mike Goodman from Kubasaki are 6-5 and junior Jeremy Christoper is 6-2. All, including 5-6 point guard Jamaal Mohn, saw significant Far East minutes a season ago.

Higgins and Mohn “have taken a leadership role and realize that this year’s team is theirs to lead,” Boyd said.

They’ll pilot a balanced offense that should feature plenty of moves to the basket as well as strong perimeter shooting, while Boyd’s defense again will range from a tight 2-3 zone to his trademark 1-3-1 half-court trap that he calls the “Black Diamond.”

In addition to league play, Boyd also hopes to hone his team’s skills with at least eight games against lightning-quick South Korean schools, and play a handful of games with the Yongsan Runnin’ Rebels post team as well as intramural squads.

Just the team’s tryouts sounded a solid note for the future.

“We had 61 kids come out, the most in my years at Seoul American,” Boyd said. “We have a wealth of young talent, both size and speed.”

Still, with a handful of talent-laden teams on the horizon, the road to a Class AA three-peat won’t be a cakewalk for Boyd and his charges:

¶ Kubasaki welcomes a pair of solid transfers in senior Marcus Carson at point guard and junior Stephen Thompson in the paint. The Dragons got off to a good start, just missing out on the title in the 35th Hong Kong International School holiday tournament last week.

“He’s the real deal,” coach Chris Sullivan said of Carson, who comes in from Virginia and appears to be at least the equal of Rich Sheffield, who led the Dragons to their last Class AA title in 1997. Thompson “is going to be strong underneath, with much-needed ability to hit the boards.”

¶ Not since 1995 have Kubasaki and its Okinawa archrival Kadena met at center court. That could happen Feb. 26 at Kadena High School, where the Panthers boast a solid group of 6-foot-plus ‘trees’ of their own, led by 6-foot-4 junior Z’aire Jackson.

“Call us in contention,” said first-year coach Robert Bliss, adding that Jackson — plus sophomore posts Brandon Rice and Gary Wright and underclass guards Jacob Love, David Mendoza and Darnell Womach — point to a bright future. “I certainly hope so. I’m looking forward to it.”

¶ Nor is the cupboard bare at Nile C. Kinnick in Japan, where junior guard Travis Ekmark and senior swingman Leonard Lynce are joined by transfer Paul Ergus from Robert D. Edgren, replacing graduated Brenden Lynce in the paint.

“We look to repeat as [Kanto Plain] league champs and our ultimate goal, of course, is a Far East championship,” said coach Nathan Brewster. “We are working harder than last year and I think the program is easier for the returning players, as it is not all new.”

But in Boyd’s mind, at least, the title belongs to the Falcons until somebody knocks them off.

“We have tradition, confidence and high expectations to win and win big,” he said. “A three-peat Far East championship is our goal.”

A look at the teams ...

Okinawa

Kubasaki Dragons,Camp Foster, Okinawa

2003-04 season record: Overall, 9-17; Okinawa-American League, 5-3; Okinawa Activities Council, 0-4; eighth in Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament.

Coach: Chris Sullivan, third season.

Key returnees: Ronnie Stephens, senior, forward; Justin Daugherty, junior, guard-forward; Vincent Hobbs, senior, guard; Chris Warner, senior, guard-forward; Keith Sturdivent, sophomore, forward.

Key newcomers: Marcus Carson, senior, point guard; Stephen Thompson, junior, forward; Joseph King, senior, center.

Outlook: Definitely contending. All key ingredients are there. Thompson’s presence inside takes rebounding pressure off Stephens and lets him focus more on shooting. Carson may be the best point guard the Dragons have had since Rich Sheffield led them to the Class AA crown eight years ago.

Kadena Panthers,Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

2003-04 season record: sixth in Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament.

Coach: Robert Bliss, first season.

Key returnees: Z’aire Jackson, junior, forward; Tyler Schmidt, senior, guard; Jon Turner, senior, forward; Brandon Rice, sophomore, forward; Terence Reid, senior, guard.

Key newcomers: Darnell Womach, junior, guard; David Mendoza, junior, guard; Gary Wright, sophomore, forward; Jacob Love, sophomore, guard.

Outlook: Contending. Perhaps as strong a Panthers team since the 2000 Class AA runners-up. Jackson can simply be unstoppable at times. Guard play was thought to be an issue, with A.J. Morgan and Dajuan Kindell having graduated, but Schmidt fills the point role nicely and there’s plenty of backup. Turner, Rice and Wright are capable scorers and rebounders. Kadena-Kubasaki Class AA title matchup a good possibility.

Japan

Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils,Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan

2003-04 season record: Overall, 22-9; Japan Basketball League, 8-5; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 10-3; third in JBL; Kanto Plain champions; Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament runner-up.

Coach: Nathan Brewster, second season.

Key returnees: Leonard Lynce, senior, forward; Travis Ekmark, junior, guard.

Key newcomer: Paul Ergus, senior, forward (transfer from Robert D. Edgren).

Outlook: Contending. Despite losing point guard Kevin Logan and post force Brenden Lynce to graduation, Brewster is confident his big three of Ekmark, Ergus and Lynce, with a solid supporting cast, can equal or better their heights of a season ago.

Zama American Trojans,Camp Zama/Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan

2003-04 season record: Overall, 14-15; Japan Basketball League, 2-6; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 7-6; fifth in JBL, tied for second in Kanto Plain; fourth in Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament.

Coach: Tom Allensworth, seventh season.

Key returnees: Will Badillo, senior, forward; Donovan Nance, senior, guard; Kyle Galatas, senior; Miguel Vega, senior; Eddy Kelley, junior, guard-forward; Jehan Brown, sophomore, forward; Aaron Tabor, sophomore, forward.

Key newcomers: D.J. Lane, sophomore; C.J. Leon Guerrero, junior.

Outlook: Contending. Senior-laden ballclub; six players return from Trojans’ fourth-place Class AA team. Will miss the 30-plus scoring average of Corey Stacy, but can still fill the nets; how Trojans play defense will determine their winning percentage, Allensworth says.

Yokota Panthers,Yokota Air Base, Japan

2003-04 season record: Overall, 15-14; Japan Basketball League, 10-5; Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools, 7-6; second in JBL, tied for second in Kanto Plain; did not place in Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament.

Coach: Paul Ettl, second season.

Key returnees: Shawn Novak, senior, point guard; Kenny Harris, senior, forward; Cameron Cooper, junior, guard.

Key newcomers: Shamarr Howell, junior, forward; Anthony Scaife, junior, guard; Jamal McNeill, senior, guard; Mark Dixon, junior, forward; Caiveon Thomas, sophomore, center.

Outlook: Reloading-contending, at least in JBL and Kanto. More balanced team than last year, good guard experience, but not very big; will likely rebound by committee. Hoping not to “peak too early,” Ettl said; Panthers ran off 11 straight games after the holiday break, only to collapse down the stretch.

Robert D. Edgren Eagles,Misawa Air Base, Japan

2003-04 season record: 25-7; Japan Basketball League, 15-3; first in JBL; did not place in Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament.

Coach: Andre Thibert, second season.

Key returnees: Michael Holmes, senior; Shamar Riddick, junior; Johnnie Shields, junior.

Key newcomers: Talon Schwalm, senior; Jacques Moton, freshman; Zach Latimore, freshman.

Outlook: Rebuilding. Key cogs in Eagles’ JBL championship drive are gone; All-Far East players Warren Wilson and Carlos Whatley have graduated, while Paul Ergus transferred to Kinnick. Still, the core of three returning players have been with the program since middle school. Season will be an exercise in building, focusing mainly on team defense.

Korea

Seoul American Falcons,Yongsan Garrison, South Korea

2003-04 season record: Overall, 35-6; league, 14-0; defending Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference champion and two-time Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament champion.

Coach: Steve Boyd, fourth season.

Key returnees: Jay Higgins, junior, guard; Jamaal Mohn, junior, guard; Phillippe Anglade, senior, guard.

Key newcomers: Mike Goodman, junior, center (transfer from Kubasaki); Tyhrel Langley, senior, guard; Leo Pacheco, senior, guard; Anthony Gatlin, sophomore, center; Jeremy Christopher, junior, guard-forward; Justin Lee, junior, forward.

Outlook: Reloading-contending. Boyd has a Falcons three-peat in mind, and feels he has the goods to do it. Starting lineup is perhaps the tallest in the region, with Higgins at 6-foot-5, Gatlin 6-6, Goodman 6-5 and Christopher 6-2. Point-guard tandem of Higgins and Mohn is as good as it gets. Class AA tournament is on Okinawa this year, but Boyd insists the title road goes through the Falcons.

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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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