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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Not often do a coach and his team have to wait four years to defend a tournament title.

That’s the task facing John O’Brien and the American Legion men’s team of Okinawa in the 10th Firecracker Shootout Interservice Softball Tournament, which returned Wednesday after a four-year hiatus.

"That was one of the best tournaments out here, then to have it go away for four years, that was disappointing," O’Brien said Wednesday, when his Legion team split its two pool-play games. "We’re glad it’s back."

Officials said the tournament was scratched after 2004 from Marine Corps Community Services’ Semper Fit Okinawa sports program due to budget cuts and because so many personnel were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We had to do our share in support of" operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, said longtime MCCS Okinawa Semper Fit chief Steve Rowland, who brought the Firecracker to Camp Foster in 1996.

"The funds dried up and we had lots of people deployed, but they started to come back around, we said what the heck, let’s try it again. It was time. The players wanted it back. There was a need. It’s a morale booster for them," Rowland said.

In the Firecracker’s absence, former Camp Schwab fitness and sports director Greg Ware staged the Yard Busters Tournament the past two years. It drew mainly on-island teams and "didn’t have the same atmosphere" as the Firecracker, O’Brien said.

One of O’Brien’s players, four-time All-Air Force outfielder Chadd Malin, played for the Misawa Air Base team from Japan that won the 1996 Firecracker. Malin, a master sergeant, was assigned to Kadena Air Base in 2005, the year after the Firecracker went away.

"When I heard they weren’t having it, it was a letdown for me," Malin said. "It’s the competition level. At Misawa, we didn’t play much ball. To come here was a pretty big deal with all the teams that come from the Pacific."

Of the 14 men’s teams here this weekend, eight are from off-island; the seven-team women’s field includes two teams each from Japan and South Korea.

"At maximum, we have eight in our weekend tournaments here," said 2007 All-Marine assistant coach K.J. Basso, a master sergeant assigned to Foster. "Here, you have eight off-island teams. You get to play a higher level of competition."

It’s also the "final chance to get prepared," Basso said, for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines softball tryout camps and the Armed Forces tournament slated for Sept. 14-19 at Pensacola, Fla.

"We’re glad it’s back. I hope it stays," O’Brien said.

The tournament ends Sunday with the women’s final at 8:30 a.m. on Foster Field 2 and the men’s final at 10 a.m. on Field 1.

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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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