By most standards, Denny Hilgar is the most decorated coach in the history of Korea high-school girls volleyball.

In 25 years at the Seoul American helm, Hilgar, 53, has shared six titles and won nine outright in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference regular season, and 15 KAIAC postseason tournaments.

So why has that not translated to success in the Far East Class AA Tournament, in which the Falcons have reached the Final Four only three times with no titles?

“It’s the level of competition, plain and simple,” Hilgar said.

Hilgar spoke a few days before the Falcons, the 2004 KAIAC regular-season champion and tournament runner-up, headed to Okinawa for the 2004 Class AA tournament at Kadena Air Base and Camp Foster. Though the KAIAC league and postseason competition was “extremely tight” this season, with strong performances by smaller schools Taegu (third place) and Osan American (fourth), “we do not have the constant level of intense competition that Kanto Plain and Guam schools have,” Hilgar said.

Only a few schools in Korea, the larger ones in Seoul, have the student base — Seoul American’s enrollment is 687; Seoul Foreign’s and Seoul International’s are in the mid-300s — to give the Falcons their toughest matches.

Other schools, such as Taegu, Osan and Pusan American, are much smaller — Taegu and Osan are about 120 each, Pusan averages about 50 — and just occasionally assemble teams that can challenge Hilgar’s.

Building continuity in a Department of Defense Dependents Schools environment also is a challenge: The student population is transient; players come and go every few years.

Players with public and private school teams on Guam and Tokyo’s Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools international teams stay at their respective schools from middle school to graduation.

That continuity and better competition has translated to 11 Class AA banners for Guam — eight for defending champion Academy of Our Lady — and eight for Kanto Plain schools (three each for American School In Japan and Seisen International).

Seoul has made occasional appearances in the semifinals (1984, ’93 and ’99) and a handful of trips to the quarterfinals during Hilgar’s up-and-down tenure. Other DODDS schools can sympathize:

Kadena enjoyed its highest-ever finish a year ago — third place — but after losing its entire lineup to graduation, went winless in this year’s 13 regular-season matches.Yokota’s fifth-place finish in 2001 was its best ever, but the Panthers were down for two seasons before rebounding to go 15-6 this season — with all the losses coming against Kanto international teams.Even Zama American, the only DODDS-Pacific school to win a Class AA title (1979, ’81, ’88 and ’97) has fallen on hard times, placing last out of 16 teams last year and building from scratch this year.Hilgar’s teams have distinguished themselves repeatedly in league play, only to trip on the big stage.

“We were the big kids on the block over here. We had records like 25-0 here,” said Jennifer Sharp, who played setter for Hilgar on 1990 and ’91 Falcons teams that dominated KAIAC but only reached the quarterfinals in the Far East tournament. She’s now a Taegu American assistant.

“Seoul American was always the best over here. There are rarely any other girls for them to look up to” in league play, Sharp said.

Without pre-Far East fire-testing against more teams like Seoul Foreign, the Hilgars of the world have to resort to mental preparation and warning players what to expect — which can go only so far.

Just before the 2004 KAIAC tournament Oct. 29-30 at Seoul Foreign, “I told my kids one day when I wanted them to realize the jump in competition levels, ‘We’re a big fish in a little pond,’” Hilgar said. “In two weeks, we become ‘baitfish.’”

Sharp said, “I’m sure coach is a pro at trying to prepare these girls for what it’s like over there. But there’s only so much he can do. You can’t explain it. … They have to experience it.”

So Hilgar presses on, bringing a gaudy league record and hoping his charges can rise beyond heights they’ve only rarely achieved.

“We can compete,” Hilgar said, “but we don’t have the level of intensity in our league to get us over the hump of those close matches.”

Far East Girls Class AA volleyball tournament

Proponent: Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific.

Dates: Nov. 8-13, 2004.

Sites: Kadena High School and O’Connor Gym, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa; Foster Field House, Camp Foster, Okinawa.

Host school: Kadena High School, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Participating schools: Academy of Our Lady Cougars, Hagatna, Guam; Seisen International Phoenix, Tokyo; George Washington Geckos, Mangilao, Guam; Christian Academy In Japan Knights, Tokyo; American School In Japan Mustangs, Tokyo; Southern Dolphins, Agat-Santa Rita, Guam; John F. Kennedy Islanders, Upper Tumon, Guam; Yokota Panthers, Yokota Air Base, Japan; Seoul American Falcons, Yongsan Garrison, South Korea; Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils, Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan; Simon Sanchez Sharks, Guam; Guam High Panthers, Nimitz Hill, Guam; Kubasaki Dragons, Camp Foster, Okinawa; Robert D. Edgren Eagles, Kadena Panthers, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa; Zama American Trojans, Camp Zama/Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan.

Returning All-Tournament players: Emma Gillan, senior, Academy of Our Lady; Wella Comoda, senior, Southern.

Format: Single round-robin play Monday, four pools of four teams each playing two-set matches for the purpose of seeding into Tuesday’s divisional play. Top teams in Monday’s pools enter Gold Division, second-place teams enter Silver Division, third-place teams enter Bronze Division, fourth-place teams enter Copper Division for another day of single round-robin play, playing best-of-three matches. Modified single-elimination playoff begins Wednesday, with teams playing best-of-five matches, concluding with Saturday’s championship.

Schedule: First round-robin matches Monday start at 9 a.m., ending at 4 p.m. Tuesday’s round-robin matches start at 8 a.m., concluding at 4 p.m. Wednesday’s playoffs start at 8 a.m., continuing through championship match at 3 p.m. Saturday. Award ceremony follows championship match.

DODDS-Pacific teams to watch

Yokota (coaches Bonnie Seeley, first year, Troy Oliver, sixth year; 15th last year) — Strong spiking from seniors Andrevia Thomas and Shawna Vitarbo and junior Shiori Kaneko, excellent floor leader in senior captain and setter Darlene Seeley. Panthers must prove they can beat international opposition consistently.

Seoul American (coach Denny Hilgar, 25th year) — Rebuilt well after departures of middle blocker Sarah Bradford and setter Jio Bruce; transfer Rachel Miller and new setter Kimberly Lee complement returning senior hitter Sheriah Taua. Won Korea regular-season title.

Nile C. Kinnick (coach Henry Falk, first year; eighth last year) — Thought to be rebuilding after losing middle blockers Carol Tully and Alisa Gilson, the Red Devils instead improved by seven regular-season victories behind new hitters Erica Niemeyer and Katie Wilkinson. Consistency key to contention.

Guam High (coach Edgar Paz, first year; 14th last year) — Setters don’t get much better than senior Shella Mesa. Panthers also get good all-around play from senior Sarah Bushong, junior Maryann Riano and Divina Bruan. Should improve over last year.

Kubasaki (coach Terry Chumley, fourth year; 12th last year) — Converted senior middle blocker Erin Foote and returning senior Naomi Gordon must fill shoes of graduated Maria Bartz, Shanon Sumter, Christine Seabaugh. Junior Brandi Amos (setter), Brittany Fultz (hitter) will help.

Robert D. Edgren (coach Sarah Richardson, 15th year; seventh last year) — Not as tall in the middle, but good hitting and consistent play in senior Langley Yard, junior Valerie Jones and dangerous senior outside hitter Arlie Boera. Still, will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s finish.

Kadena (coach Jim Lewis, first year; third last year) — Entire starting lineup from Panthers’ best-ever third-place finish graduated; only seniors Shonta Smith and Bailey Paschal remain. Lewis is trying, but youthful lineup is perhaps a year from regaining contender status.

Zama American (coach Dennis Decker, third year; 16th last year) — Complete, total rebuilding-from-scratch job for Decker, an eternal optimist who has nary an upperclassman, which may bode well for the future but will mean a week of hard knocks on Okinawa.

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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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