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Junior Aja' Walker (3) is one of just three returning players on a Kadena Panthers girls basketball team that's won the last two Far East Class AA Tournament titles.
Junior Aja' Walker (3) is one of just three returning players on a Kadena Panthers girls basketball team that's won the last two Far East Class AA Tournament titles. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Call this the year of starting over as far as many Pacific high school girls basketball teams are concerned.

Of the 12 DODDS-Pacific and DDESS-Guam schools, just five return three or more players.

Across the board, coaches are suggesting that their programs are a year from emulating the many contenders that dotted the map last season.

The changing of the guard begins at the top of the Class AA heap, where for the first time since 2002, Ken Hudson will not be coaching two-time defending Far East champion Kadena.

That role falls to Dewayne Pigge’, for the past six years an assistant to boys coach Robert Bliss.

Pigge’ inherits three returners — and serious expectations, as the Panthers have won three of the past six Class AA titles.

"He has a resume behind him," Pigge’ said of Hudson, who stepped down after last season but consulted with and gave pointers to Pigge’ about the team.

"I admire him a whole lot. I look up to him. He’s done a great job with the program."

Juniors Aja’ Walker and Javinia Riddick and senior Lorien McKinney, who played for Hudson, will help bring along a new group, including junior scoring weapon Brittney Wise.

"We’ll have our challenges," Pigge’ said.

"The girls are working hard, learning to feed off the experience that’s on the court. The newcomers seem to be jelling with the veterans and coming together as a team. We have to take it one step at a time."

He’s far from the only new face dealing with cobbling together a team loaded with fresh faces.

For the first time in 23 years, Charlotte Hicks is not coaching Seoul American.

That job belongs to Billy Ratcliff, who transferred from Germany and boasts just two returnees, senior Devanee’ Taylor and sophomore Liz Gleaves.

Kevin Peterson becomes Matthew C. Perry’s fourth coach in four seasons, and has just one experienced veteran, Kelli Clark, to help mentor a green group.

The departure of Kristia and Riza Suriben and Samantha and Nicole Bossert leaves E.J. King second-year coach Michael Seitz with a handful of freshmen and sophomores — six players total.

Still, not everyone is in dire straits.

Despite having just one returner, Yokota coach Ric Cabral welcomes aboard freshman guard Erika Ettl, boys coach Paul Ettl’s daughter, who’s averaged 18 points in her first three games.

With sophomores Shannon Jackson in the paint and Deana Hardison bombing away on the perimeter, Nile C. Kinnick should also be a force in DODDS-Japan and Kanto Plain.

Daegu American appears young on paper, but even 6-foot-1 sophomore Kristina Bergman has much playing time.

Along with junior Jamie Cheniault and senior Olivia Buford, the Warriors might surprise some people, coach Michelle Chandler says.

Osan American’s fortunes will revolve around guard play, and they have a proven leader in Celine Baldevia, who helped the Cougars win their second straight Class A volleyball tournament title earlier this month.

Robert D. Edgren, perennially rebuilding, got some welcome news via the PCS plane, including junior Jessica Bergman and freshman Imani Wimbush, who has shown inside strength for an Eagles team that’s 3-1.

For his part, Pigge’ set a course for the Panthers to be strong defensively and has installed several zone defenses that he hopes will be key to their fortunes.

"They’ll be very hard to play defensively," Pigge’ said.

"We’ll definitely be strong in the post area."

The Panthers, Class AA champions six times, know what’s at stake.

"We’ve set a goal for ourselves, to be at the top," Pigge’ said.

Class AA capsule previewsSouth Korea

Seoul American FalconsYongsan Garrison2007-08 record—34-4, 16-0 Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference Division I (16-time defending champion), 2007-08 Far East tournament runner-up.Coach—Billy Ratcliff, first season.Key returners—Devanee’ Taylor, Sr., F; Liz Gleaves, So., G-F.Outlook—Reloading for KAIAC, rebuilding for Class AA. First season in the last 23 years that the dean of Far East mentors, Charlotte Hicks, isn’t coaching the team. Plenty of new blood; much of the talent that landed the Falcons into their 14th straight Final Four now gone.

Okinawa

Kadena PanthersKadena Air Base2007-08 record—27-10, 8-5 vs. Japanese high schools, 4-0 vs. Kubasaki in Okinawa Activities Council; defending Far East champion.Coach—Dewayne Pigge’ first season.Key returners—Aja’ Walker, Jr., F.; Javinia Riddick, Jr., G; Jasmine Baker, So., G; Lorien McKinney, Sr., F; Brittney Wise, Jr., G.Key newcomer—Desiree Seals, Fr., G.Outlook—Reloading. Some experienced talent with many new young faces around it. Pigge’ is stepping into some giant shoes left by former coach Ken Hudson, three Class AA titles in six years.

Kubasaki DragonsCamp Foster, Okinawa2007-08 record—10-24, 7-9 vs. Japanese high schools, 0-4 vs. Kadena in OAC season series.Coach—Robert Driggs, 18th season.Key returners—Gabby Falco, Jr., F; Retsel Alvarez, Sr., G; Bianca Johnson, So., G; Natasha Copeland, Jr., F.Key newcomers—Shina Carter, Jr.; Bri Davis, Jr.; Nicole Bossert (transfer from E.J. King), So.Outlook—Rebuilding. Like last season, it’s a matter of how quickly Driggs’ young troops develop; some experience but plenty of youth to go around.

Japan

Yokota PanthersYokota Air Base2007-08 record—22-8, 8-6 Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools (third), 10-1 Japan Basketball League (champion), 9th at Far East tournament.Coach—Ricardo Cabral, seventh season.Key returner—Anya Brown, Jr.Key newcomers—Erika Ettl, Fr., G; Asia Porcil, Jr., G; Paige Davis, So., F; Desiree Kirkwood, Fr., F.Outlook—Rebuilding. The good news is, Ettl, daughter of boys coach Paul Ettl, is an already-developed player. Much will depend on the development of the other newcomers; inexperience abounds.

Nile C. Kinnick Red DevilsYokosuka Naval Base2007-08 record—17-13, 7-7 Kanto (fourth), 10-3 JBL (second).Coach—Henry Falk, 10th season.Key returners—Yasmine Espree, Sr., G; Mary Niemeyer, Jr., F-G; Deana Hardison, So., G; Shannon Jackson, So., F.Key newcomers—Sasha Croffut, Sr.; Camille Kawamoto, Jr., F; Marie Conner, Sr.; Mariah Mitchell, Fr.Outlook—Reloading. Plenty of experience, particularly among underclassmen who won’t be going anywhere. Hardison and Jackson show plenty of promise, ability.

Zama American TrojansCamp Zama/Atsugi Naval Air Facility2007-08 record—11-14, 4-9 Kanto (seventh), 5-4 JBL (third).Coaches—Parish and Veronica Jones, sixth season.Key returners—Elizabeth Powell, Sr., G; Crystal Valentine, Jr., G.Key newcomers—Mallarie Ashliman, So., G; Katie Scully, Jr., F.Outlook—Rebuilding. Again, only a handful of returners for the Joneses to mold into a team; it’ll be a hard road. Scully shows tremendous potential.

Guam

Guam High PanthersAgana Heights2007-08 record—6-15, 4-10 Interscholastic Basketball League.Coach—Yvonne Tyrrell, first season.Key returners—Carmina Sheaks, Jr., F-C; Ashley Cosey, So., G; Stephanie Posadas, So., G.Outlook—Rebuilding. Panthers could be a year away from being an IGBL and Class AA contender if they’re able to keep people for more than a couple of years at a time.

Class A capsule previewsSouth Korea

Osan American CougarsOsan Air Base2007-08 record—19-13, 6-7 KAIAC Division I (fourth).Coach—Bruce Barker, 14th season.Key returners—Celine Baldevia, Sr., post; Jasmine Pressley, So., G; Alina Hauter, So., G; Hanna Sparks, Sr., G.Key newcomer—Keshia Edison, Sr., post.Outlook—Rebuilding. Like last year, not much experience inside, a handful of veterans helping Barker build a squad around newcomers with little basketball experience.

Daegu American WarriorsCamp George2007-08 record—14-11, 9-5 KAIAC Division I (third).Coach—Michelle Chandler, 10th season.Key returners—Jamie Cheniault, Jr., F; Rebekah Wyche, Sr., G; Kristina Bergman, So., F; Olivia Buford, Sr., F; Victoria Lagat, Jr., G; Angie Robinet, So., G.Key newcomers—Chanel O’Neal, Jr., G (transfer from Fayetteville, N.C.); Melia Lagat, Fr.; Alexis Parker, Fr.Outlook—Reloading. Though mostly freshmen and sophomores, enough experience abounds among the returnees to make this team competitive quickly.

Japan

E.J. King CobrasSasebo Naval Base2007-08 record—19-7, 3-2 JBL (fourth).Coach—Michael Seitz, second season.Key returner—Amber Seard, So., G-F (injured, and transfers this month).Key newcomers—Emily Cox, So., G; Darion Romero, So., G.Outlook—The mother of all rebuilding jobs. Seitz lost two pairs of sisters key to the team’s fortunes last year, guards Kristia and Riza Suriben and forwards Samantha and Nicole Bossert. With Seard leaving, that leaves a very green squad and perhaps a very long season for Seitz.

Matthew C. Perry SamuraiMarine Corps Air Station Iwakuni2007-08 record—7-16, 0-10 JBL (sixth).Coaches—Kevin Peterson, first season.Key returner—Kelli Clark, So., C-F.Key newcomers-Kelsey Peterson, Jr.; Rebekah Harwell, Fr.Outlook—Another major rebuilding task facing yet another new Samurai coach. Clark brings varsity experience to the table. A long campaign for Peterson.

Robert D. Edgren EaglesMisawa Air Base, Japan2007-08 record—5-17, 3-12 JBL (fifth).Coach—Sarah Richardson, 19th season.Key performers—Jessica Bergman, Jr., G-F (transfer from Virginia); Ashley Hawkins, Sr., G-F; Eurydice Williams, Jr., F; Imani Wimbush, Fr., F; Elizabeth Kiper, So., F; Jaelen Knolle, Sr.Outlook—Reloading. Plenty of ability, and enough youth that Richardson could build the Eagles’ most competitive team since the 2000 and 2002 Class AA runners-up.

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