Japan high school football preview: Yokota’s hold on crown could be slipping
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — After seven seasons as the Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific high school football juggernaut, the Yokota Panthers are starting over.
Seoul American unceremoniously ended the Panthers’ 36-game winning streak in 2005’s Far East Class AA semifinals.
Now, Panthers coach Tim Pujol finds himself with a team as thin in numbers and small in physical size as any in his eight seasons at the helm — and rivals Zama American and Nile C. Kinnick appear on the rise. There’s even talk that with enrollment dwindling to 329, Yokota might drop from Class AA to Class A for the coming season.
Might this be the year parity returns to the Japan Football League and Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools?
“That’s not how we’re conducting business here,” Pujol said Tuesday, three days before Yokota’s season opener at Kinnick.
Still, just the numbers could give other teams hope: Yokota began its two-a-day summer workouts with only 18 players; usually, between 35 and 40 show up.
Since then, up to 51, with about half earmarked for varsity play, have shown at practice. But after injuries in two preseason scrimmages with Japanese teams, Yokota enters Friday’s opener with a roster of 21.
“Nobody expected” the lack of players, Pujol said. “We don’t know the reason.”
Thus, he’s avoiding long-term goals. Revenge for that loss to Seoul American has “been mentioned by the returning seniors,” he said, “but we’re trying to go one step at a time.”
In no way is Yokota’s cupboard bare, though. Eight players, including five starters, return, including junior running back Anthony McNeill, who was second in the JFL last season with 788 yards on 95 carries.
Yokota will decide Sept. 8 whether to remain at Class AA or drop to Class A, Pujol said. Meantime, it still has one winning streak to maintain: 32 regular-season games since 2002.
“We’ve put out some goals,” Pujol said. “We want to win Kanto and JFL. … But the postseason discussion … doesn’t seem relevant right now.”
It might seem relevant for Kinnick, with its largest roster in numbers and size since it went unbeaten in 1996 to win the Kanto Plain title.
Matt Martinez, back as Red Devils coach after a year off, said he hopes a line-up including JFL rushing champion senior Larynzo Abernathy finally can put Kinnick over the top.
After two second-place campaigns, “they’re tired of … being runner-up,” said Martinez. His squad lists transfer brothers Clay and Chad Atchley from Texas and a host of holdovers including senior fullback Andrew Preston.
Still, Martinez feels Yokota still will be formidable. “Those guys will always put together a quality squad,” he said. But “we have enough new kids who’ve not heard about the Yokota hype. All they know is they’re a good football team and they have to play well on Friday night, and any other Friday, to win.”
Second-year Zama coach Victor Rivera plans to do far better than the last winless season, he said. Spending part of the summer visiting Miami Dolphins workouts made him “much better prepared and organized to manage a team this year,” he said.
Rivera will rely on a core of seniors, including twin-skills position backs Quenton and Quincy Howard and burly Aaron Tabor.
Rivera’s strict behavioral rules last season, even down to a shirt-and-tie dress code for road trips, appear to have taken hold.
“Our motto is, we’re going to win more games than we lose and maintain that demeanor of last year,” he said.
The demeanor for the Robert D. Edgren Eagles, 2005’s Class A runner-up, might be summed up in two words: rebuilding year.
But Chris Waite, the team’s fifth coach in seven seasons, said he hopes his small core of experienced veterans, including junior quarterback Josh Ray and senior fullback David Leh, can help Edgren become strong Class A title game hosts on Nov. 4.
“Anything’s possible,” Waite said.
Yokota PanthersYokota Air Base
2005 record: 7-1.
Head coach: Tim Pujol, eighth season, overall record 62-7, seven JFL and Kanto titles, five Rising Sun Bowl championships.
Base offense: I.
Base defense: 5-2.
Returning players: 8.
Returning starters: 5.
Key returning players: Caiveon Thomas, Sr., TE-DB; Anthony McNeill, Jr., RB-DB; Kyle Shimabukuro, Sr., OL-LB; Stefan Welch, Sr., PK-P; Patrick Pamintuan, Sr., DB-WB.
Key newcomers: Peter Weaver, Sr., QB; Desmond Shine, Sr., OL-NG.
Strengths: Core of eight returnees, the most Pujol has had in several seasons.
Drawbacks: Lack of depth throughout roster; only 18 showed for initial workouts first week of August; varsity currently rosters 21 players. Youth, inexperience; three freshmen will start.
Overview: Reloading. Panthers are still champions until somebody knocks them off but if any year is the year to get them, this is the one.
Nile C. Kinnick Red DevilsYokosuka Naval Base
2005 record: 4-4.
Coach: Matthew Martinez, first year as head coach; served as defensive coordinator under former longtime head coach Robert Stovall.
Base offense: I.
Base defense: 5- and 4-man fronts.
Returning players: 12.
Returning starters: 6.
Key returning players: Jeff Galang, Sr., QB; Larynzo Abernathy, Sr., RB; Andrew Preston, Sr., LB; Jonathan Santos, Sr., WB-DB; Ian Vasquez, Sr., OL-DL; Lewis Rosure, Sr., OL-DL.
Key newcomers: Clay Atchley, Sr., WR-DB; Chad Atchley, So., WR-LB.
Strengths: Depth, size in the interior, as big a team as the Red Devils have had since their unbeaten 1996 season.
Drawbacks: Haven’t beaten Yokota since the 1998 season.
Overview: Contending. As complete a Kinnick team as has stepped on the field since its run of four straight Kanto Plain titles, 1995-98, but needs to beat Yokota to legitimize it.
Zama American TrojansCamp Zama/Atsugi Naval Air Facility
2005 record: 0-8.
Coach: Victor Rivera, second season, overall record 0-8.
Base offense: Power.
Base defense: 5-4, 5-3, 4-5 multiple.
Returning players: 15.
Returning starters: All 15 started at least one game.
Key returning players: Ben Bishop, Sr., QB-TE; Aaron Tabor, Sr., FB-DE; John Toliver, Jr., HB; Tim Campbell, So., L; Adam Carroll, Sr., L; Luis Cuadrado, Sr., LB-CB; Adam Godfrey, Jr., OL-CB; Chris Goss, Sr., TE-S; Michael Johnson, Sr., L; Jon Kimball, Jr., L; Daniel Polaski, Jr., C; Quincy and Quenton Howard, Srs., QB-HB-S-CB.
Key newcomers: Emanuel Sloan, Fr., QB; T.J. Sloan, So., HB-DB; Kadeem Jones, So., DL.
Strengths: Size, experience, desire; this team loves to hit.
Drawbacks: See Kinnick.
Overview: Reloading-contending. “If we can get that one W, you’ll see a Zama team like nobody has seen in a long time,” Rivera said.
Robert D. Edgren EaglesMisawa Air Base
2005 record: 2-6.
Coach: Chris Waite, first year, assistant under previous head coach Jim Burgeson.
Base offense: Modified west coast, run-and-shoot; pass-oriented.
Base defense: 6-1.
Returning players: 12.
Returning starters: 10.
Key returning players: Josh Ray, Jr., QB; Neils Johnson, Sr., LB; David Leh, Sr., FB-LB; Kevin McDonald, Sr., LB; Andrew Blankenship, Jr., S.
Strength: Dedication, heart, desire.
Drawbacks: Thin in numbers, experience.
Overview: Rebuilding. If no injuries occur to key players, a few wins are possible. Gaining confidence through an early victory or two is crucial to this team’s hopes.
Japan football schedule
Friday, Sept. 1
Yokota at Kinnick, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 2
Edgren at Zama, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 9
Yokota at ASIJ, 1 p.m.
Edgren at Kinnick, 1 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 15
Zama at Kinnick, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 16
ASIJ at Edgren, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 23
Edgren at Yokota, 1 p.m.
Kinnick at ASIJ, 1 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 29
Yokota at Zama, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 30
Kinnick at Edgren, 1 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 6
ASIJ at Yokota, 7 p.m.
Zama at Edgren, 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 13
Kinnick at Yokota, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 14
Zama at ASIJ, 1 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 20
Kinnick at Zama, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 21
Yokota at Edgren, 1 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 27
Zama at Yokota, 7 p.m.
ASIJ at Kinnick, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 4
Class A championship, DODDS-Korea Class A champion at DODDS-Japan Class A champion, time and site to be determined
Class AA semifinal, Okinawa Activities Council champion at DODDS-Japan Class AA champion, time and site to be determined
Saturday, Nov. 11
Class AA championship, semifinal winners at Seoul American or Guam High, time TBD