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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — For the first time in seven years, Japan base teams didn’t have to shake off rust in the Firecracker Shootout Open Softball Tournament.

The Yokota Samurai and Misawa Red Dawgs — the two Japan team participating in this weekend’s Firecracker — play in the newly formed U.S. Forces Japan men’s varsity softball league, along with Yokosuka Naval Base, Camp Fuji and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. Misawa, Yokota and Yokosuka form the three-team women’s league.

“What this gives us is a chance to play more games, and it keeps us mentally prepared for when we come to tournaments like this,” Yokota player/coach Dana Finniss said.

The league fills the five-week void between the first Pacific Grand Slam tournament, the Pacificwide Open over Memorial Day Weekend in South Korea, and the Firecracker.

The Raiders swept a three-way, three-game series with Fuji and Yokosuka the week before the Firecracker.

“It’s great for us,” Finniss said. “We have something to keep us game-ready.”

Until the mid-1990s, USFJ sponsored competitive leagues in a variety of sports, with full regular-season schedules and end-of-season tournaments.

That ended in 1993, when budget cuts and troop drawdowns after the Persian Gulf War led to an emphasis on intramural, company-level and youth sports.

The USFJ league was revived for one summer in 1997 but went by the wayside until Matt Kalcevich, the intramural sports director at Yokosuka, decided to form self-sufficient USFJ leagues, in much the same manner as the USFJ-American Football League.

“We’re just trying to piggyback off the momentum we have with football,” said Kalcevich, who refers to himself as USFJ’s “extramural” sports honcho. “We’re trying to establish leagues in soccer, volleyball and basketball as well. All will have the USFJ title.”

Kalcevich said he became a one-man lobbying gang, contacting athletic and sports directors at the “big eight” bases in Japan — Yokota, Misawa, Iwakuni, Camp Fuji, Camp Zama, Atsugi Naval Air Facility and Sasebo Naval Base, as well as Yokosuka.

“We discussed and brainstormed, trying to make things as easy as we could for everybody,” he said.

Taking on such a venture on a shoestring, with almost no support from each base and with the operations tempo brought on by Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, wasn’t easy.

“It’s better than not playing at all,” Finniss said.

“The mission comes first. We know that,” said Misawa player/coach Rich Mitchell, adding that his club won’t be able to travel to next weekend’s USFJ tournament at Yokota Air Base. “It’s just hard with the mission being what it is. Going away for two weekends in a row is pretty hard.”

Logistically there can be headaches. Yokota is comparatively fortunate to have a $3,000 team budget, but “not everyone is budgeted,” Finniss said. “Some teams have to raise money.”

Yokota and Misawa also have the advantage of being able to check out 44-passenger buses for trips to other bases.

“Everybody has different levels of support and priorities but we’re getting it done,” Kalcevich said.

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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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