You won’t find it in the Chinese animal zodiac. But in Pacific high school football, this certainly has been the Year of the Panther.

Yokota, Guam High and Kadena have combined to go 16-0 this season and have outscored their foes 603-121. Already, Guam High has clinched its first Interscholastic Football League regular-season title; Kadena and Yokota would also clinch titles with homecoming victories Friday.

Yokota hosts Nile C. Kinnick, whom the Panthers blanked 42-0 on Sept. 17 at Yokosuka Naval Base. Defending Far East Division I champion Kadena hosts Kubasaki, which hung with the Panthers early before Kadena scored 41 unanswered points last Friday to rout the Dragons 56-16.

Should Yokota win, it would mark coach Tim Pujol’s 11th DODDS Japan and Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools titles in his 12 seasons at the helm. Only last season were his Panthers denied. Pujol says there are marked differences between Yokota of 2009 and 2010.

“This year’s team has a toughness, mental and physical, that’s been borne out of a determination we made” after last November’s Far East playoffs, when Yokota took second place.

The coaching staff met with 14 returning players and said: “Our prep for 2010 begins now.” That carried, Pujol said, over to playing other sports, offseason weight training and building esprit de corps.

“We all feel a sense of ownership and pride that somehow wasn’t present in large enough quantity in 2009,” Pujol said.

His Panthers went 7-5 a year ago, losing twice each to eventual Division I champion Kadena and Kanto champion American School In Japan.

“I don’t know how many times we’d have had to play to beat them,” Pujol said. A 33-6 loss at eventual Division II champion Zama American on Oct. 2 showed “our team’s struggles, mental weakness and an inability to handle adversity.”

Plenty of homegrown talent and veteran leadership returns from that team, including running backs Devin Day and Morgan Breazell (combined 1,003 yards, 17 touchdowns), which has changed the Yokota schematic dramatically for the better, Pujol said.

Still, there’s the matter of getting past a Red Devils team on a two-game winning streak. “A lot is on the line Friday,” Pujol said. “A win goes a long way toward securing those goals.”

Kadena, after struggling to 22-6 and 24-14 wins over Daegu American and Zama in September, finally put the pedal to the metal in the last three quarters at Kubasaki, spoiling the Dragons’ homecoming.

“We knew this team would click eventually,” said coach Sergio Mendoza. “Those games helped prepare us, fine tune us and get used to being in close situations.”

That they were, trailing 16-15 with 42 seconds left in the first quarter before quarterback Lotty Smith, who accounted for three touchdowns, and running-back tandem Shariff Coleman and Thomas McDonald (five combined TDs) turned on the jets.

“We were going to be ready for those challenges,” Mendoza said. “It was a question of when we would rise up to them, and we did.”

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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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