Niki Kauzlarich would love to win Monday’s individual 3.1-mile race in the Far East High School Cross Country Meet at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

But that would be just one piece of the puzzle in what she says is the ultimate goal: becoming the first Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific squad to repeat its overall team championship.

“We can get the individual gold,” said the junior two-time Okinawa All-Island champion who’s enjoying an unbeaten season. “But it’s more important for the team to win the banner.”

Kauzlarich and the Panthers, with 12 other teams, will chase that prize in the two-day meet that begins Monday with the girls’ individual 3.1-mile race at 10 a.m., followed by the boys’ 3.1-mile race at 11 a.m. and the 31.5-mile team relay Tuesday at Misawa’s Gosser Memorial Golf Course.

This week marks many changes to the Far East meet:

Formerly a biennial event, held in even-numbered years since its inception in 1978, Far East cross country meets will now be held every year.The team relay, which was 19.4 miles and in which participants ran staggered legs, expanded to 31.5 miles, with all 10 entrants — for teams who bring that many — running 2.5-kilometer segments.This is the first Far East meet featuring only DODDS-Pacific teams, after the DODDS-Pacific regional decision because of concerns about billeting and athletic fields.Among DODDS schools, only Kadena has won overall team championships, in 1984 and 2002, and seeks to become first DODDS school to repeat that feat.

To do so might not require winning either the boys individual 3.1-mile races, or even capturing the team relay. Having a deep squad that can run consistently near the top in all three events would do the trick.

“Cross country is really a team sport,” coach Andre Thibert of host Robert D. Edgren said. “Not necessarily that you have the best individual runners, but a large amount of runners right in the middle. They (best teams) will kill you in terms of depth.”

That’s something the Panthers feel they have in abundance, particularly on the boys’ end, said senior Jon Turner, part of Kadena’s 2002 championship team.

“We’ll have people in those crucial spots,” said Turner.

He, Devon Copeland, Aaron Zendejas, Tim Nabonne and Ben Zendejas, the island’s top five boys runners, “can stay with the lead pack. Other teams have just one or two individual stars. We have five who can stay within a minute of each other.”

Kadena’s girls team is not quite as deep, but the presence of Kauzlarich, Dianne Abel, Victoria Lyle, Katelin Kennedy and Madison Harter might just be enough.

“I think we’ll have runners in those positions,” coach Tom McKinney said. “Our guys’ team has been steady and the girls have picked it up.”

That doesn’t mean a repeat championship is automatic, as the Panthers face stern opposition in all three races:

Seoul American, with its strong girls contingent that includes Sarah Yance, Cathryn Furner, Oksana Petrichenko and others, could challenge for girls top team honors.Kubasaki’s girls might be a sleeper, with twin juniors Crystal and Candace Sandness, top 10 All-State runners in Utah last year, and sisters Beth and Lisa Nielsen.Individual talents loom on the horizon as well:

Chris Cerrillo has emerged as Zama American’s strongest runner in 16 years.Though in a recent slump, Brieanna Carroll of Pusan American has clocked three sub-20-minute times the past two seasons and could finish her career with a splash.And host Edgren is top-heavy in individual stars, such as DODDS-Japan girls champion Jade Thrasher, a freshman, and junior boys tandem Peter Kamau and Daniel Sanchez, the latter hoping to end his Edgren days with an individual gold; he transfers to North Dakota later this month.Turner realizes Kadena will be carrying a bull’s-eye on its back, part of the burden of being the hunted. But he also thinks that burden could fall on the hunters, particularly since Kadena’s boys have run the table in every Okinawa meet this season.

“If I were other teams, I’d be worried about that,” Turner said. “We still have the talent to win this thing again.”

Far East high school cross country meet

Proponent: Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific.

Dates: Nov. 8-9, 2004.

Site: Gosser Memorial Golf Course, Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Host: Robert D. Edgren High School, Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Format: 3.1-mile individual race Monday. First four finishers score points for their teams. Ties to be broken in favor of team with fourth-place runner who finishes with best time. 31.5-mile team relay Tuesday. Teams run in pairs, with one boy and one girl running two 2.5-kilometer legs each, total of 5 kilometers or 3.1 miles per individual. Ties to be broken in favor of team with fifth pair that finishes with best time. Overall scoring determined by combined placement in boys and girls 3.1-mile individual races and team relay. Ties broken in favor of team that places highest in team relay.

Schedule of events: Opening ceremony 8:30 a.m. Monday, Robert D. Edgren High School. Girls 3.1-mile individual race 10 a.m., boys 3.1-mile individual race 11 a.m. Trip to Shimoda Mall, 5-9 p.m. Team relay 10 a.m. Tuesday. Awards ceremony 1 p.m. Richard Bong Theater.

Awards: All-Star medals to top 10 finishers in 3.1-mile individual races. Team trophies and individual medals to top three teams in 3.1-mile individual races and team relay. Plaque to overall team champion.

Participating teams: Robert D. Edgren, Yokota, Zama American, Nile C. Kinnick, Matthew C. Perry, E.J. King, Japan; Kadena and Kubasaki, Okinawa; Seoul American, Taegu American, Pusan American, Osan American, South Korea; Guam High.

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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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