KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — As stern a rebuilding task as they’ve ever faced looms for Kadena’s boys and girls soccer teams as they try to maintain their dominance on the Far East pitch.

Between them, 16 starters have graduated or transferred, taking with them a combined 171 goals, 169 assists and plenty of Class AA tournament title hardware. The Panthers girls are three-time defending champions; the boys earned similar honors three of the past four years.

“This is definitely my rebuilding year,” girls coach Hoa Nguyen said. “We have seven new starters. It’s going to be tough.”

Indeed. They must replace Dianne Abel (61 goals, 47 assists) and six others who contributed 50 goals and 63 assists.

Still, the Panthers teams will soldier on. Nguyen will fit those new starters and three veterans around Jen Abel, who set a Pacific record last year with 70 goals.

“We’re still the Kadena Lady Panthers,” Jen Abel said. “Anybody who plays knows they’ll give it their all. You can see the girls are pushing themselves. I’ve always had faith in my teams over the years. As long as you stay focused and work hard, you can accomplish anything.”

The boys, under new coach Tom McKinney, plan a different sort of tack — taking returning seniors Dean Harkum and Alex Mierzejewski and surrounding them with athletes who have enjoyed championship success in other sports such as cross country, wrestling and basketball.

“Gone are the days of the LaGraves and the Zendejases,” McKinney said of Aaron Zendejas (20 goals, 12 assists) and Nathan LaGrave (11 goals, 10 assists), who graduated and have taken their talents to the Northern Iowa and Bucknell, respectively.

In their place are Mierzejewski at sweeper and Harkum in the midfield. Bolstering the backline for the Panthers are Far East wrestling champs Brandon McCullough and Jacob Bloom, basketball stalwarts Jamil Barney and Terrone Sheffey and others “who know what pressure is,” McKinney said. Bloom also ran for Kadena’s Far East cross-country champion team last November.

“They know what it’s like to win gold. They understand the pressure Kadena’s going to be under. Alex, Jamil, Terrone, those are three competitive athletes back there. You give a different look and toughen up the defense. We’ll be fine. We’ll be competitive.”

But do they have what it takes to remain atop the Class AA heap?

History paints a definitive picture. Kadena owns a combined nine Class AA championships. Only once has a Class AA title ever left Okinawa in the 10-season history of Far East tournaments, and never has a visiting team won the title when Okinawa hosted.

Kadena hosts the boys Class AA tournament in May and might have its hands full with a Christian Academy In Japan squad that won the title in 2005 and returns all but two players from last year. Fueling CAJ’s attack is sophomore Leo Kobayashi, he of 32 goals, second-most in the Pacific last year.

“I really think CAJ will be strong,” coach Chris Kelly of Class AA runner-up Kubasaki said. “Leo is a scoring machine despite his size. He’s the real deal and they have a wonderful team around him. It’s up to us to keep pace. Home advantage might be thrown out the window.”

Defending DODDS-Japan champion Yokota, with its centerpiece midfielder Stefan Welch (20 goals, 32 assists) could also figure in the picture, as might an Edgren team, led by Nathan Fine (10 goals, 15 assists) that took second in DODDS-Japan last year and returns to Class AA after a year at the Class A level.

Might Kubasaki have a say in things?

“We’re really young,” Kelly said of a Dragons team with just three seniors. “We and Kadena had a boatload of talent walk out the door. Unprecedented.”

Looking to derail Kadena’s girls’ hopes of bringing home a fourth straight title is a Kubasaki squad that might be the best that coach Terry Chumley has fielded since winning back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003.

The girls Class AA tournament is at Yokota in May. The host Panthers return veterans Bre Anderson (20 goals), Daniya Nixon (15) and also welcome sophomore transfer Lauryn Thomas from Virginia. She’s been working with assistant coach Terry Welliver, a former All-Air Force player.

Kinnick, with veterans Frances Zukowski (22 goals, 10 assists) and Mariko Wood (15 goals, 19 assists), won the DODDS-Japan title last year before fading at Far East but could also figure into the title chase.

Nguyen said this might be Kubasaki’s year.

“They’re the team to beat,” he said.

While Chumley said her Dragons are “fundamentally strong” in most areas, she wouldn’t make any predictions at this stage.

“If we get the girls in the right positions, we’ll have a solid team going into Far East,” she said. “We’ll just play hard every game and hope we can get to where we need to be at the end of the season.”

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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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