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Niki Kauzlarich and Jon Turner, left, and Cliff Johnson, right, flank longtime Kadena Panthers cross-country coach John Dawson, who has coached the team since the school opened its doors in the fall of 1981.
Niki Kauzlarich and Jon Turner, left, and Cliff Johnson, right, flank longtime Kadena Panthers cross-country coach John Dawson, who has coached the team since the school opened its doors in the fall of 1981. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — After nearly a quarter-century of being involved in Far East cross country, John Dawson is leaving Kadena High School.

After 35 years in the Department of Defense Dependents Schools system, Dawson, 60, the only DODDS-Pacific coach to win a Far East championship, is retiring. In 23 seasons, he led Kadena to team titles in 1984 and 2002.

“It’s tough to replace a legend,” said his successor, Tom McKinney, who transferred to Kadena from Seoul American last summer, took over the team last fall and led the Panthers to the Okinawa Activities Council championship.

“Knowledge, what to do in certain meets, how to run against certain competitors, what to do, who to push,” McKinney said of the things Dawson brought to the team. “He got his homework done. He knew how to push his team. They could have run blind this year. His teams were well-prepared.”

More than imparting wisdom about running skill, how to condition, how to adjust to the elements, how to adopt pace, Dawson was a great motivator.

“He inspired us,” said Kadena junior Jon Turner, a three-year veteran. “That made all the difference. He was the person who made me want to run and pushed me harder. Without him, it’s going to be a lot tougher. The big inspiration is going to be gone.”

That helped Kadena capture Far East cross-country team championships in 1984 and 2002.

The 2002 championship came as a surprise to Dawson, who felt his squad was an underdog to Guam public and Tokyo international schools.

But Kim Lyle won the 3.1-mile individual girls race and the Panthers placed second in the 19.4-mile team relay, giving Kadena a two-point edge over DODDS rival Seoul American.

“We had some really good kids who came through,” he said. “It was the surprise of surprises.”

“That was really cool,” Turner added, recalling a pep talk that Dawson gave the team before it boarded the bus for the relay on Day 2. “He told us we were in the running and that all we had to do was focus.”

Niki Kauzlarich, who’ll be a junior in the fall, said it gave the squad a lift. “That made us strive harder,” she added. “I was excited. It had been 18 years since we’d done it. We kept saying, ‘We can take it, we can take it.’”

Though the 2002 team was among the few that finally overcame long odds against Guam and Tokyo schools, Dawson emphasized that all of his squads brought similar traits to the course.

“They come with all the right ingredients,” he said. “They run, they like to run, they have the desire to run and they like each other. I add my ingredient — you have to believe in yourself. And they believe they can do it, and once they do, they can’t stop.”

“It’s tough” to leave, Dawson said. “But I’m looking on the positive side. It couldn’t be better. There’s a good nucleus. They know the strength is still there. I’m thrilled that it’s a very strong team. I just know everybody’s going to get better.”

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