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Two Decembers ago, former Nile C. Kinnick wrestling coach Scott Smith couldn’t stop raving about his group of Red Devils, mostly freshmen and sophomores who oozed potential.

“Whoever coaches this team is going to have himself a powerhouse,” Smith said, sounding a warning note about the team’s future and announcing his planned retirement after the 2002-03 season.

That “whoever,” Robby Rhinehart, brings to the mats this season a group that includes one defending Far East tournament weight-class champion, one runner-up and two others who placed in the top six, plus a handful of transfers with tremendous potential.

But hold the phone, says Rhinehart, in his second year at the helm after more than two decades of coaching in the States. On paper, the Red Devils might look great, but it’s a long season and they face many obstacles in the person of other contending teams.

“You always want to be cautious,” he said. “It could be a special season. But we still have a whole lot of work to do.”

And they have a whole lot of mountains to scale before attempting to better their third-place finish in the individual freestyle team standings and runner-up finish in the dual-meet portion of the Far East tournament, Feb. 17-19 at Yokota Air Base.

To start, Kinnick must negotiate a conga line known as the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools season. Last year, Kinnick shared that league title with two teams, and Rhinehart thinks the regular season could be even tougher.

“It will be just as difficult as Far East to win, if not more difficult,” Rhinehart said of international school powers such as St. Mary’s International, American School In Japan and Christian Academy In Japan.

Those schools won’t attend Far East this year; In September, Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific ruled that Far East wrestling tournaments will be limited to DODDS teams in the future, citing concerns over billeting and athletic facility availability.

But DODDS and international schools will clash en masse at Kinnick’s own “Beast of the Far East” invitational slated for Feb. 5. Considered in the past the major tuneup for Far East, “Some people are calling that the ‘real’ Far East’ this season, Rhinehart said.

Even the lack of international schools at Far East won’t make things easier for Kinnick.

The Red Devils have to contend with on-the-rise Zama American, with defending heavyweight champion David Burnett and the rebuilding 2003 Far East champion Yokota, and a Kadena team spearheaded by 168-pound champ Devon Copeland that’s becoming an Okinawa power on the horizon.

And of course, there’s defending dual-meet champion Seoul American, with its returning 180-pound champion Scott Tunis.

“I could tell how they were as a team,” Rhinehart said. “Even their lesser wrestlers were just tough. You won’t have an easy match with them. I don’t care who they are.”

Kinnick and Seoul American will likely collide at the Kinnick Invitational. “That’s where we’ll see how we stack up,” Falcons’ coach Julian Harden said.

Kinnick has what it takes to overcome the Falcons and all others “if everything plays out the way I’m hoping,” Rhinehart said.

“Only time will tell. We could have returning champions in every weight class; we still have to wrestle the tournament. If they come together as a team, which we’re doing, and wrestle with a lot of intensity. Those who stay on the attack,[will] end up with a lot of success.”

That quality helped senior Joey Wood win the 158-pound title last year; he returns at 168. Juniors Yamato Cibulka (141) and Kenji Doughty (148) each were top-three Far East wrestlers last year.

And Rhinehart is hoping for big things from 215-pounder senior Adam Krievs, who transferred to Kinnick from Matthew C. Perry, whose football team folded in September and is staying with relatives at Yokosuka Naval Base. This is Krievs’ first year of organized wrestling.

“He’s quite an athlete,” Rhinehart said, adding that Krievs combines quickness with power and strength, “which you don’t really find often. You usually have quickness or power. Not both. He’ll pay some dues at the beginning of the season, but he’ll do well.”

Despite the obstacles, “We’ll contend,” Rhinehart said. “We have the talent to do it. The wrestlers will have to make the decision to have the intensity to do it.”

Wrestlers to watch

(School, name, year in school, weight class, placement in 2004 Far East tournament, if any)

Japan

Nile C. Kinnick: Joey Wood, senior, 168, defending 158-pound champion; Kenji Doughty, junior, 141-148, defending 141-pound runner-up; Yamato Cibulka, junior, 148-158, placed third at 135; Alex Curtis, junior, 129-135, placed fifth at 122; Mervin Ibanez, senior, 148-158; Terron Yates, sophomore, 101; Adam Krievs, senior, 215; Nick Carroll, freshman 115.

Zama American: David Burnett, senior, heavyweight, defending Far East heavyweight champion; Anthony Garcia, senior, 129, placed sixth at 122; Nick Villasana, senior, 141, placed sixth at 135; Matt Bohan, sophomore, 115, placed fifth at 101; David O’Brien, junior, 135; Adam Godfrey, freshman 122; Chris Johnson, senior, 148.

E.J. King: Scott Macri, senior, 122; Brandon Gilbert, senior, 141; Mark Lagrisola, sophomore, 148.

Yokota: Zach Dopslaf, junior, 180, placed fourth at 180; Mike Ladd, junior, 168; Garrett McCaw, junior, 158; Randall Pelletier, freshman, heavyweight.

Robert D. Edgren: Louie Lee, senior, 129, placed third at 115; Victor Lee, sophomore, 148; Kiko Bratcher, sophomore, 180-215; Vincent Doinoff, junior, 141; Niels Johnson, sophomore, 180-215; Brian Greer, senior, 135; Kevin McDonald, freshman, 158-168; Dustin West, senior, 215.

South Korea

Seoul American: Scott Tunis, senior, 180, defending 180-pound champion; Chris Steuerwald, junior, 115, placed third at 108; Josh Dowers, senior, 148, placed fourth at 141; John Crabtree, senior, 135, placed fifth at 135; Mark Snow, sophomore, 215.

Osan American: Aaron Clifton, placed fourth at 168; Jared Reid, placed fourth at 108; James Dean Fuimano, placed sixth at 180.

Okinawa

Kadena: Devon Copeland, senior, 168, defending 168-pound champion; Grady Pennell, senior, 215; Andrew Satterlee, senior, 180; Brenden Stanford, senior, 135, won 2002 Far East 101-pound championship; Chris Isley, junior, 115.

Kubasaki: Christian Segarra, junior, 108, defending 101-pound champion (transfers in January); A.J. Lebarre, sophomore, 122; Steve Courtney, sophomore, 141; Justin Villanueva, senior, 135; Willie Stroud, senior, 148; Jason Paula, senior, 141-148.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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