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For a few hours Friday night, it seemed like the nightmare of the 2003 season was happening again for coach Hoa Nguyen and the Kadena girls soccer team.

First, midfielder Courtnie Paschall tweaked an ankle she injured months ago during the volleyball season. Then sweeper Kim Lyle came up with a pulled groin muscle and a fever.

It took some of the luster off Kadena’s 2-0 shutout of Okinawa archrival Kubasaki. Four injuries to key players — including Paschall and Lyle — struck the Panthers at the worst time last season, derailing their drive toward a Far East Class AA tournament title.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Nguyen said of what the new injuries might affect what he calls his deepest, most talented team.

They came just a week before the Panthers were to depart for Camp Zama, Japan, where they will try to better last season’s fourth-place finish and reclaim the Class AA crown they won in 2000.

Without Lyle and Paschall, “we’re still a good team, but it’s going to be hard,” Nguyen said, adding that after a 3-0 shutout of Nago, a Japanese team, on Sunday, goalkeeper Theresa Gittens came to him and said, “I’ve never worked this hard the whole season.”

“Kim’s probably going to be OK if she rests for a few days,” Nguyen said.

“Courtnie’s foot, we’ll just have to nurse it. With a week of rest before Far East, she’ll be ready.”

Though they don’t sport the statistics of their more heralded teammates, Dianne and Jennifer Abel, Katie LaGrave and Vanessa Williams, Lyle and Paschall play key roles in setting up goals and keeping opponents away from the net.

“It’s going to be a headache for the other team to counterattack or defend my front line,” Nguyen said.

But Lyle not making it back in time could be devastating for the Panthers, Kubasaki head coach Terry Chumley said. “Kim Lyle is a major factor in their defense.”

Kubasaki striker Erin Foote, noting that Paschall and Lyle are seniors, thinks the two won’t let the injuries hinder them.

“They’ll play through the pain, and the Abels run the offense so well,” Foote said.

“As long as they keep doing what they’re doing, they won’t have a problem.”

Chumley calls Kadena the best team she’s seen since the 1998 Panthers won the first Class AA tournament — maybe better.

“It’s equal to the team from 1998, and definitely deeper. They seem more balanced this year,” she said.

Can the Panthers be stopped?

“You have to win all the 50-50 balls,” Foote said. “You have to win every ball, in the air or on the ground and play very aggressively, because they play very aggressively.”

Still, talented scorers and superior depth have helped the Panthers (15-0) outscore the opposition 78-1.

“This is the deepest team I’ve had, the best I’ve ever coached at Kadena since 1998,” Nguyen said.

Dianne Abel leads the Pacific with 23 goals and has set up 16. Williams has scored 14 goals, LaGrave has 10 goals and eight assists and Jennifer Abel has eight goals and five assists.

Fourteen Kadena players have scored at least one goal and Gittens has 13 shutouts.

Kadena enters the tournament as the team to beat and a solid bet to dethrone two-time defending champion Kubasaki.

“They are a deep team,” said Foote, a two-time All-Far East selection who has 20 goals this season and a region-best 84 in three years. “They have talent. This certainly has been their year.

“You’ll have to compete with them from the first minute to the final whistle.” A Kadena victory — or a third straight Kubasaki title — would keep on the island a title won by an Okinawa school since the Class AA tournament’s inception in 1998.

“On any given day, anything can happen. Any team is beatable,” Seoul American coach Lori Cannon said. “Okinawa always seems to have the big, strong, speedy players. Kubasaki or Kadena would have to have an off day.”

Assuming Lyle and Paschall make it back healthy, Nguyen said he’s hoping for no off days and plenty of victories next week.

“This is the team,” he said. “If any team can do it, this is the best chance we have.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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