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Freshman guard Kimi Cece of Kubasaki had been itching to get into the Dragons’ game against Chubu-Shogyo, a Japanese girls basketball team.

She entered in the second period. But after five minutes of relentless full-court running, the substitution buzzer bleated and Cece returned to the bench, breathing deeply and looking relieved.

“I was pretty winded,” she said Monday, a few days after that 85-79 loss to ChuSho. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

It was her first game in the Okinawa-American League, which Kubasaki and Kadena coaches call the “Okinawa Express.”

Outsized by their American foes, the Japanese teams counter with fast breaks, man-to-man pressure defense and three-point shooting. And they maintain that pace, forcing the Dragons and Panthers to either slow the tempo or match the Japanese teams’ relentless speed.

“They look at our size and rebounding and try to get us into a transition game. Zip, zip, zip and away we go,” said Kubasaki girls coach Bob Driggs. “If you don’t get into a half-court set, it can get away from you really easily.”

The first two years after Kadena opened, in 1981-82, Kubasaki and Kadena each fielded two teams for regular-season games, then combined the best players from each team into varsity squads for Far East tournaments.

The system had flaws, Driggs said, but the alternative of organizing just one team per school also had a major problem: The teams had only had each other to play.

So in 1984, they started playing Japanese schools on the island, which field teams throughout the year and hold monthly tournaments.

The Japanese “look at these games as training,” Driggs said. “We’ve had really good relationships with the teams out in town.”

Japanese teams “want to get games on base,” said Keith Richardson, a Camp Foster Marine Corps Community Services employee who acts as a liaison and accompanies Japanese teams to games on base.

“They like that different style of ball. There’s more power in the American game.”

And there’s more speed in the Japanese game. For instance, Driggs recalls that when Kadena boys coach Scott Davis went to Itoman, “They gave him a bouquet of flowers and then went out and beat him 110-10.”

Such poundings resulted in improved conditioning, fundamentals and mental approaches, coaches and players said.

Kadena senior Theresa Gittens, the MVP of the 2003 Far East Class AA (large schools) Tournament, played her freshman year with Osan American in Korea. Without hesitation, she says she’d rather play “Okinawa Express” ball.

“It boosts my skill level and game overall,” she said. “The competition level is extremely high. They’re quick and always on the move.”

“It gets me in better shape,” added Kubasaki sophomore Mike Goodman, a 6-foot-1 center on the boys’ squad. He played middle school ball for two seasons in the States before moving to Kubasaki two years ago. “Back in the States, they give you different looks, switch to zones, stuff like that,” he said. “Here, the Japanese just run.”

The challenge for coaches is just as daunting.

“Swarming defense and how they play the entire floor on both ends,” said Chris Sullivan, second-year coach of Kubasaki’s boys team. “They know they can’t match up with us underneath so they live and die with defense and fast breaks. They don’t let us take the ball up the floor at our leisure.”

Sullivan, who coached Nile C. Kinnick in Japan for two seasons, sees a marked difference between play on the Kanto Plain and Okinawa.

“The teams up north are more physical and play a strong low-post game underneath,” he said. “Here, the strength is the perimeter. American kids are taught not to over-defend the three-pointer, to rotate down low. Here, it’s just the opposite.”

But Sullivan also said such an up-tempo pace helps teams prepare for Far East competition. “It requires them to condition, to anticipate quickly and to see the whole floor,” he said.

Such preparation shows in the Far East tournament title ledger. Kubasaki and Kadena have combined to win 29 Far East tournaments, more than any other region. Of those, 19 have come since Kadena and Kubasaki began playing Japanese teams.

“It’s an education and an opportunity we’ve taken advantage of,” Driggs said. “And it shows in the results.

“The kids get out there at Far East and say everybody looks a lot slower. And they never have a problem catching the team bus.”

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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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