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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — As a freshman last season, Aja’ Walker was known primarily as a rebounder.

That changed in the Far East championship game — in dramatic fashion. Walker, a power forward, netted a career-high 19 points as Kadena won the Class AA title by routing American School In Japan 85-39 on the Panthers’ home court.

Nine months later, Walker didn’t miss a beat in Kadena’s 2007-08 season-opening 89-79 victory over Gushikawa, a Japanese team. Walker nearly doubled her career high with 36 points, and snagged 10 rebounds.

“I was counting the days” until Kadena’s first practice, Walker said. “I had to start the season on a good note.”

“She was unstoppable,” coach Ken Hudson said of Walker’s performance, a deft mix of baseline jumpers and offensive rebound putbacks. It was the most points scored by one player, Hudson said, in his tenure.

In both games, “she couldn’t miss. Her height, her jumping ability – it was almost impossible for anybody to block her.”

Quite a change, Hudson said, from the complementary player who would rake the boards for 10 to 15 rebounds per game, but who hit double figures in points only a couple of times last season.

“She was a freshman,” Hudson said. “She was doing what freshmen do. She didn’t understand the plays, didn’t understand the offense, didn’t understand what we were doing as a team.”

The 19-point championship game served as part of what Hudson called a “maturity process. She matured as a player as the season went on, and it all came together” in the victory over ASIJ.

“I needed to step it up,” Walker said, “finish more shots, finish strong, help my team out.”

With her performances 266 days apart, Walker first helped lead the Panthers to the most one-sided victory in the 32-year history of the Far East tournament, then got the current season off to a flying start.

More than one of Walker’s coaches says she possesses “Division I college potential.” But in which sport?

Hudson coaches her in softball as well as basketball; Greg Rosenberger had her as a middle blocker in volleyball during the fall. Each speaks highly of Walker.

“She’s been gifted,” Hudson said of the 5-foot-11 Walker, who mirrors the height of her father, Spacey, an Air Force master sergeant with Kadena’s 730th Air Mobility Squadron. “She has the size, the athletic build, a college build, a natural frame.”

“She’s come into her own,” senior basketball teammate Brittany Gilliam said. “She’s starting to see herself in her role. I’m starting to see her as a major component.”

Walker’s leaping ability impresses Hudson.

“I can’t recall a player I’ve had who has a vertical leap like hers,” Hudson said of Walker’s almost 18-inch leap. “She jumps on a jump shot, she jumps to get the rebounds. She has speed. She has quickness. She’s one fine athlete.”

The same leaping ability helped Walker average 11 spike kills and eight block points in Kadena’s five-match Okinawa Activities Council season-series volleyball victory over Kubasaki.

“She has the tools” to succeed at a higher level, Rosenberger said.

“I just take advantage of my height,” Walker said.

Walker is equally versed, Hudson said, on the softball diamond. She plays the tough corner positions, first and third base, and bats third or fourth in the lineup.

“I practice a lot, a lot of batting practice and a lot of time in the gym with weights,” she said.

But softball might take a back seat to track and field in her junior year before her father, mom Theresa and sisters Andrea (9) and Alona (5) are due to transfer.

“I want to do softball for one more year, to get a better feel for it,” she said. “Then, I’ll see about doing track in my junior year.”

“I can easily see her running the 400, the long jump, the high jump — she can do whatever she wants to do,” Hudson said.

In his five years at Kadena, Hudson has already sent three players — Theresa Gittens (Missouri Valley College), Katie LaGrave (Augsburg College, Minn.) and Zori Drew (Brigham Young-Hawaii) — to the college level. Walker could be next.

“She has Division I potential if she’s handled properly,” Hudson said.

“It’s an honor to have a coach who can get me to the next level,” Walker said, but such thoughts are far from her mind as a sophomore. Most immediately, there’s the business of the next Class AA tournament.

“I’m focusing on my team and what we need to do. I hope we can defend it (Class AA title) and stay champions on our home court,” she 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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