SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — For the first time, all five DODDS-Japan and three DODDS-Korea high school teams got a chance to wrestle each other in a regular-season invitational tournament.
Saturday’s E.J. King Invitational pitted Yokota, Robert D. Edgren, Nile C. Kinnick, Zama American and host King of Japan against the DODDS-Korea League’s Seoul, Osan and Daegu American teams. The event served as a tuneup for next month’s DODDS-Pacific Far East meet on Okinawa.
Not since Seoul wrestled in the 2005 Kinnick Invitational "Beast of the Far East" Tournament had Korea-based teams done this. And longtime Falcons mentor Julian Harden said the trip served three purposes for his team.
"I’m taking back two pages full of stuff" to work on in practice, he said.
His Korea rivals, Osan and Daegu, can’t fill all 13 weight classes, so the opportunity to come to Japan gave wrestlers such as Demetrius Johnson at 158 pounds a chance to be "challenged," Harden said.
He also got a chance to pick the brains of the Japan coaches about Okinawa powers Kubasaki (20 Far East titles) and Kadena (four), whom they competed against in the "Beast" tournament on Jan. 10.
Harden and his wrestlers observed officiating that differs from what they normally see in their weekly Korea tri-meets.
The Falcons finished seventh out of the nine schools present.
"I firmly believe that getting beat down like this gives us more things to work on, so we can go back and practice so we can better represent Korea at Far East," Harden said.
Japan coaches agreed with Harden’s assessment.
"They [Korea] have good, solid wrestlers at different weights," Yokota coach Brian Kitts said. "Julian’s a solid coach. They got their first taste of [outside] competition today. (At Far East) they’ll be much better than they showed here today."
The 158-pound weight class that produced the E.J. King tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, Darrel Morris of Edgren, was the meet’s toughest and could be a precursor to a mat war at Far East on Okinawa, Kitts said.
"There were five legitimate champions there," Kitts said of Morris, Johnson, Daegu’s Greg Jones, Yokota’s Andrew Conkling and Zama’s Michael Spencer. "That’s a hard weight class."
Kitts liked what he saw in Osan’s top-tier weights, 215-pound senior Jesse Crockett and 275-pound junior Michael Gilliam.
"Jesse’s a four-year wrestler. He knows what to do," Kitts said. "Gilliam, he’s got heart."
The tournament also featured four returning Far East champions, each of whom won their respective weight classes on Saturday, including reigning Far East Outstanding Wrestler Cameron Butts of Kinnick.
The three others, Mark Meade (108), Chris Cournoyer (115) and Tony Presnell (168), lifted Yokota to its first tournament team title of the season. Yokota had 31 points, Kinnick was next with 22 and Edgren was third with 16.
Though happy for having won the King tournament, Kitts refused to say that automatically labeled his Panthers a pre-Far East tournament favorite.
"They don’t worry about who won at Sasebo three weeks from now. They don’t worry about who won ‘Beast’ three weeks from now," he said. "Far East is the big one for a reason."