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Ask coaches or players what the most important position is in their respective Far East high school sports, and most won’t hesitate to answer.

In football, coaches prefer a strong offensive line to protect the quarterback and open holes for running backs.

A volleyball team is only as good as its setter, longtime Seoul American coach Denny Hilgar said. “You can have the best hitter in the world, but if she can’t get the ball, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

According to a teammate, Kadena point guard Theresa Gittens was an irreplaceable part of the Lady Panthers, who captured the Class AA Far East girls basketball championship in February.

“She led the team and gave us confidence,” senior Jennifer Mathews said. “We play three levels down without her, and our team wouldn’t have a centerpoint to keep the team together. Theresa is just an awesome athlete and definitely someone who stands out in the crowd.”

So why can’t people agree on the key position in soccer?

“A midfielder,” argued Yokota junior Brett Wagner, who’s delivered six assists for the Panthers (5-2-1). “A midfielder has the endurance to run, then has precision — they do most of the placing of the ball — and they are usually cool-headed players.”

“Not everyone has the potential to be a good goalkeeper,” countered Osan American senior captain Mike Elkins, who has eight assists as a forward and center-midfielder for the Cougars (5-4-1).

“A strong center-halfback is the guy that controls the game,” added senior sweeper Ryota Nishiyori of Japan’s Zama American (6-0). “He can move anywhere, front line, back line, anywhere.”

“The center positions — sweeper, stopper and center-midfield,” said Nile C. Kinnick senior center-mid Go Yamada, who’s scored seven goals in 2003. “A soccer coach seeks someone who can see the whole game, how the game is being played and how to control that game.”

But many Pacific players insist teams can’t succeed without all 11 players working together.

“One or two players may see the whole field and see the whole game, but it takes the whole 11 to make that happen,” Yamada said.

Of course, the most visible performers are those who score, or the ones who dive, sprawl and lunge to keep the ball out of the net.

Yet it’s those who do the grunt work — the deft touches to teammates, the clearing passes up the wings and the through balls to the goal scorers — who play just as critical a role “but get little glory,” Wagner said.

“For someone who really loves the game and who is a true winner, it’s the inner satisfaction that the goals couldn’t have happened without you,” said Zama senior striker Jimmy Flatley, who scored 30 goals last year to lead his team to seventh place in the Far East tournament and has five this season. “That’s all you need.”

Start in the back, where the sweeper and stopper strive to make a goalkeeper’s life easier. Joel Chalmers, Robert D. Edgren’s goalie a year ago, credits his old teammate, Jonny Blythe, for “saving me several times when I was out of position.”

Defenders “build the play up and work the passes, especially (to) the midfielders. Defense stops most of the stuff, and us goalkeepers are just there to stop the few balls that do get through.”

A solid presence in the middle, at sweeper and center-mid, can relieve pressure in other areas of the field, Nishiyori said. He’s slid into the sweeper role, while the center-mid spot has been assumed by senior James Dones, a transfer from E.J. King in southwestern Japan.

Once a center-mid gets the ball, it’s as if he’s a second coach on the field.

“I’m the one feeding,” said Yamada. “I feed my forwards for them to score. I take shots if I see the opportunity.”

“We’re the engine,” said Kinnick junior striker Alexis Zukowski, who leads the Lady Red Devils (7-1) with eight goals and four assists. “We run up, down, helping others out, supporting and making an opportunity occur.”

Others argue that what counts sits up front. Without a good finisher, one who can score in crunch time, “then you’ll have a good team, but not a winning team,” said sophomore Brieanna Carroll, who has 16 goals for Korea’s Pusan American.

Team chemistry can never be discounted.

“It’s like ESP,” said Osan senior Jennifer Gates, who leads Korean teams with eight assists. “It’s like an inborn connection they have. There’s all that room to be covered with 10 players who depend on each other. Miscommunication, fatigue, fighting — all these things will result if teamwork isn’t found on the field.”

That’s the challenge, and it gives the game widespread appeal.

“When we put that black and white ball in the back of the net, how good it feels to get a goal, how good it feels to win a game as a team and not as an individual,” Yamada says, “that’s what keeps me coming back.”

“It’s the need to perfect and hone my skills,” Zukowski added. “I love going out there and doing that one move or that one shot I worked on in practice. Or that one play we sweated for. To see it come together gives me the heebie jeebies.”

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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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