KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Last year, Kadena coach Hoa Nguyen sat atop the high school tennis lot after his Panthers won the Far East title with one of the finest DODDS-Pacific girls players in years, singles champion Amy Lopes, and two silver medal-winning doubles pairs.

Those are distant memories as the 2005 season approaches — Lopes has transferred, and four seniors graduated. Even Nguyen’s Far East home-court advantage is gone as the event moves from Kadena Air Base’s Risner Tennis Complex to the Hagatna courts on Guam in November.

“We’re back to square one,” Nguyen said.

He likens the season, which begins Thursday, to Kadena’s 2002 season, in which he assembled the building blocks of a team that finished second in Far East in 2003 and took the crown in 2004.

Of that group, only senior Anthony Soroka remains, charged with the responsibility of leading a team loaded with youngsters.

But there is a silver lining, Nguyen said. Being defending Far East tournament champion has attracted more players.

“It’s the tradition of tennis we’ve carried,” Nguyen said. “We have more kids joining the tennis team than we did four years ago. They want to be a part of that bandwagon. It’s not as tough as it was four years ago. We have more of a pool to choose from.”

Despite losing Travis Dang and Kamen Christin to graduation, the boys’ cupboard isn’t totally bare, Nguyen said of a squad that includes senior Jon Armani among its returning cast. Soroka spent part of the summer sharpening his game in a tennis camp at Stanford University.

“Our boys team is very strong, the strongest I’ve had in six years,” Nguyen said.

The same cannot be said, however, for a girls squad that lost Lopes along with her doubles partner, Lori Kanikkeberg.

“They were a cut above everybody else,” coach Nico Hindie of Nile C. Kinnick of Japan said about Lopes and Kanikkeberg.

Thus, the leadership responsibility of the girls’ team falls to lone experienced returnee Kathryn Otterson.

“We have a few newcomers who have played for three or four years,” Nguyen said. “Some hit the ball well, but not at a competitive level. We’ll have to work very hard to get there by November.”

November also will bring Kadena’s first road trip to a Far East tournament since the Panthers won the team title in 1989 at Clark Air Base, Philippines.

“Knowing the surface of the courts, the ball’s bounce, the wind, the sun’s angle” will disappear at Hagatna, Nguyen said.

Then there’s the knowledge that other teams will be hankering for that which belongs to Kadena, particularly Seoul American, which lost the overall team title by two points.

“Seoul American knocked me out last year,” said Soroka, who lost in the Far East boys singles quarterfinals to the Falcons’ Allen Chin, and again to Chin and Thomas Kim in the boys doubles final. “They’re definitely in my mind.”

Also lurking is James Edwards, a senior who gave tiny Pusan American — with a ninth- through 12th-grade enrollment of only 35 this year — its first Far East title of any kind in 11 years, winning the boys singles.

“We’re using that as fuel, as motivation,” Armani said of the potential contenders nipping at Kadena’s heels and replacing departed stars. “Now, we have to fill those holes.”

Players to watch in DODDS tennisJames Edwards, Pusan American, South Korea, Far East boys singles, mixed doubles champion.

Allen Chin, Seoul American, South Korea, Far East boys singles runner-up, doubles champion.

Hyun-min Kim, Taegu American, South Korea, Far East boys singles fourth place.

Anthony Soroka, Kadena, Okinawa, Far East boys doubles runner-up, singles quarterfinalist.

Frances Delossantos, Kubasaki, Okinawa, Far East girls singles fourth place.

Kristia Suriben, E.J. King, Japan, Far East girls doubles third place.

Jeff Wilson, Zama American, Japan, Far East boys consolation doubles champion.

Eric Su, Nile C. Kinnick, Japan, Far East boys doubles third place.

Jae-kwan Park, Pusan American, boys consolation singles, doubles semifinalist.

Tori Lee, Robert D. Edgren, Japan, girls consolation singles quarterfinalist.

Airamy Rivera and Katherine Herrera, Nile C. Kinnick, Japan, Far East girls doubles fourth place.

Joyce Cao, Nile C. Kinnick, Japan, Far East girls consolation doubles runner-up.

Kathryn Otterson, Kadena, Okinawa, Far East consolation mixed doubles champion.

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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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