Far East volleyball edge goes to teams that can hit and block
The rise and fall of a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific girls volleyball team can be quick and precipitous.
Take last year’s Far East Class AA volleyball tournament Cinderella story.
Playing at home, the Kadena Panthers bulldozed their way to the semifinals.
Only a four-set loss to eventual champion Academy of Our Lady of Guam kept the Panthers from becoming the fifth DODDS-Pacific squad to reach the finals, leaving them in third place.
But then all six starters graduated or transferred. Only three Panthers, two with Far East experience, return. Even coach Rachelle Smith left.
Rebuilding year? Not in the eyes of new coach Jim Lewis, a retired Navy lieutenant who transferred in from Rio Rancho, N.M., who has coached high school ball for four years and Navy ball for six.
“At this level, if they’re motivated and have the desire to play, the only thing that will stop them is themselves,” Lewis said. “If they want to play, they’ll play. My job is to get them to want to.”
Lewis’ “go-do-it” attitude might belie an awfully tall order. Not only is Kadena’s cupboard bare compared to last year, but, in general, DODDS-Pacific teams have had difficulty building consistent winners.
Just two DODDS-Pacific schools, Zama American in Japan and Osan American in Korea, ever have won a Class AA or Class A tournament. The tournament titles long have been the property of Guam schools (12 total) and Tokyo international schools (nine), which are able to keep and develop players.
“Maybe not so much the physical skills but what picks them up is they’ve been together, the experience of being a team player, knowing what’s expected of the people beside them,” said athletics director Bonnie Seeley of Yokota High in Japan.
“And DODDS doesn’t have the middle-school program. Some of our JV players come in with no skill at all, while some of those other schools’ players have been together since middle school,” Seeley said.
“Every year is a rebuilding year,” senior setter Erin Foote of Okinawa’s Kubasaki Dragons said.
Denny Hilgar, who’s coached Seoul American for 24 years, runs a jamboree-style program for prospective prep players in March “but it’s a crapshoot as to how many will be with you in the high school years,” he said.
“You think you can count on somebody, and then find out, oops, the family left,” said Hilgar, who must overcome the loss of four-year setter Jio Bruce and two middle blockers.
What does Kubasaki coach Terry Chumley do, for example, when graduation robs her of her top three hitters, Shanon Sumter, Maria Bartz and Christine Seabaugh?
“You make use of the talent that you have, and you don’t worry about what you don’t have,” she said. “If you have a strong defense and a couple of good hitters, you go with it.”
Just a handful of DODDS teams have kept their talent base together.
Osan American in Korea boasts the Pacific’s tallest player, 6-foot-4 junior Margaret Nurse, and the Cougars are aiming to return to the Class A throne. Taegu American, with seniors Christina Wojtonik and Ashley Gooch and junior Kelli Cox, might challenge as well.
Out of the ashes of a 15th-place Class AA finish, Yokota’s Panthers carry a solid talent base in seniors Jonica Childress, Darlene Seeley and Shawna Vitarbo along with strong newcomers.
“I’m excited. I think we have a lot of potential,” Seeley said, adding that this Yokota team could equal or better the one that finished fifth in the 2001 tournament. “Comparing this group to others in the past, this team is as good, if not better than any in my six years here.”
Others go about the business of retooling, such as Kadena, even if Lewis insists that “I don’t consider anything rebuilding.”
Returning are senior Yumi Eykelbosch, who played regularly in 2003 and is the team captain, along with little-used senior Shonta Smith. Bailey Paschall, a junior, played during the season but not at Far East.
DODDS-Pacific volleyball teams, players to watch
¶ Guam High: Panthers started strong, winning four of first six matches, behind returning senior setter Shella Mesa and senior hitter Sarah Bushong. Coach Ed Paz’s ranks are bolstered by new outside hitter Divina Bruan and defensive specialist Maryann Riano. Very promising squad.
¶ Kadena Panthers, Okinawa: Entire starting lineup graduated and coaches Rachelle Smith and Fred Hicks transferred. Only seniors Yumi Eykelbosch and Shonta Smith and junior Bailey Paschall are left from team that posted its best-ever Far East finish, third place. New coach Jim Lewis, a retired Navy lieutenant with six years of coaching in the service and four in high school, transfers in from New Mexico.
¶ Kubasaki Dragons, Okinawa: Coach Terry Chumley’s cupboard was swept bare of all experienced middle hitters, Maria Bartz, Shanon Sumter and Christine Seabaugh, by graduation. Only three players, seniors Naomi Gordon and Erin Foote and junior Rachel Roberts, return.
¶ Seoul American Falcons, South Korea: Six returners, four of them starters, senior middle blocker Sheriah Taua, senior defender-setter Jane Chai, junior middle blocker Chivonne Floyd and junior setter Kimberly Lee, who must fill shoes of departed former All-League and All-Far East setter Jio Bruce. Senior Rachel Miller transfers in from Louisiana. Must replace departed middle blockers Sarah Bradford, Joann Manoogian.
¶ Yokota Panthers, Japan: Strong core of returning seniors, outside hitter Jonica Childress, setter Darlene Seeley, middle blocker Shawna Vitarbo plus newcomer seniors Andravia Johnson and Daniella Cervantes join forces with junior JV promotee Nikki Doll and junior holdover Shiori Kaneko. Could be as good as team that finished fifth at Far East in 2001.
¶ Zama American Trojans, Japan: Youthful squad. Coach Dennis Decker hopes returning junior Jamie Cayanong and influx of new talent, such as freshman Keily Sasano and setter Kat Schultz, a junior transfer from the States, can be foundation for future title contender. Zama is only DODDS school to win Class AA title.
¶ Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils, Japan: New coach, Henry Falk, inherits team that lost both middle hitters, Carol Tully (graduation) and Alisa Gilson (transfer). Three returners, junior Erica Niemeyer, sophomore Katie Wilkinson and senior Christine Traufler, will help, as will senior Jasmine Jordan, back after taking a year off.
¶ Robert D. Edgren Eagles, Japan: Edgren posted its best-ever Far East finish, seventh, a year ago but the middle blocking that led the way (Lindsay Murchison, Janae Burt) has departed. Seniors Arlie Boera (outside hitter) and Samantha Johnson (outside hitter-setter) and junior Langley Yard (outside-middle hitter) remain from last year’s squad.
¶ Osan American Cougars, South Korea: Coach Brian Swenty’s charges primed for return to title they last won in 2001. All-Far East junior middle blocker Margaret Nurse, at 6-foot-4, returns in the middle, as do seniors Aimee Parker, Sarah Rodriguez (Class A best defensive player) and Maria Popelka and junior Kara Baccus, each of them All-League a year ago. Junior Jannel Acoba transfers from Alconbury, England.
¶ Taegu American Warriors, South Korea: Another experienced lot, with All-League seniors Ashley Gooch and Christina Wojtonik returning with junior Kelli Cox. Lindsey Jackson and Lynette Grant bolster coach David Hagander’s ranks. May be threat to reach first Class A final since 1999.
¶ Pusan American Panthers, South Korea: Coach Laird Small boasts good blend of experience (senior hitters Mycal Horton and Aimee Brown) and youth (freshman hitter Shabraya Hayes and sophomores Mindi John, a setter, and Kristine Meany).
¶ Matthew C. Perry, Japan: Samurai welcome new coach Tom Herman from Florida, with incumbent Carrie Briggs assisting. Some 20 players turned out this year, led by returning senior Ruth Coleman, junior Brittany Scott and sophomores Sarah Mayer and Dana Garland. Will be a rebuilding season; there are enough numbers, but experience may be an issue.
¶ E.J. King Cobras, Japan: Often short on height, Cobras and coach Mike Seitz might make that up with experience and heart; senior Cassie Tumbado, juniors Joann Yu and Elicia Castro and sophomore Kayle Rhode started a year ago. Leadership of graduated Erika Ongoco will be sorely missed.