KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Gazing around the gymnasium, Rachelle Smith noted the banners, black with gold trim, emblematic of the many Far East high school titles won by Kadena High.

Four Far East girls basketball banners, seven boys hoops championships. Collectively, the school has also captured four soccer crowns.

But it was a pair of banners in one corner that piqued her curiosity. A Far East tennis tournament banner from 1989, and cross-country titles in 1984 and 2002 — Kadena being the only Department of Defense Dependents School to win team championships in those biennial tournaments.

“There’s a spot up there for a volleyball banner,” said Smith, a Navy dentist, Annapolis graduate and former All-Navy player who coaches the Kadena girls team. “I can see it.”

She has good reason for such optimism.

Kadena placed in the top eight at the past two Class AA Far East tournaments — the first time that’s been done in the school’s 22-year history.

The Lady Panthers feature five returning starters, including senior setter Courtnie Paschall and senior middle blocker Katie LaGrave, and they will host this year’s tournament Nov. 10-14.

And they genuinely believe they can take the final step and capture the crown.

“I met with the seniors after a practice. They each told me their goals for the season, and two of them said, ‘I want to win Far East.’ That’s a great goal to have,” Smith said.

Such expectations might seem a bit unrealistic, given that only two DODDS schools have ever won it — the tournament has been dominated by the schools from Guam (10 titles), which considers the game its unofficial national sport, and international and missionary schools from Tokyo (seven titles).

Among active DODDS schools, only Zama American can claim four Far East crowns. Wagner High, formerly of Clark Air Base in the Philippines, grabbed the first Far East tournament in 1975.

Longtime Seoul American coach Denny Hilgar said the Guam and Tokyo schools’ “continuity” is behind their dominance.

For the most part, those schools develop players at the middle-school level and retain them through graduation. DODDS schools rarely have that luxury.

“Most DOD schools are lucky if they have a three-year cycle,” Hilgar said. “You get a group that’s as green as grass in year 1. The second year, they’ve been on the battlefield and now want to do some damage. Then, your third year, your kids have finally gelled, are focused on a goal and have a rewarding season. Year 4, back to the drawing board.”

Zama, which placed fourth last year, suffered a talent drain when it lost setter Hannah Seki (graduation) and outside hitters Joshlynne Julias and Rosanna Ignacio (transfers). But three starters return, and coach Dennis Decker is confident the squad can be a factor in the Far East picture this fall.

At last year’s tournament, Kadena stunned the field by downing Guam’s Simon Sanchez in the playoffs, and appeared to be a Final Four threat before losing close matches to Zama and Guam High.

And the Lady Panthers remain a viable threat, insists Smith, who last winter helped establish a club system through Kadena’s 18th Services that she says will develop players from age 5 to middle school.

“You’re going to see a lot better volleyball here over the next five to 10 years,” said Smith.

As for the present, Kadena is focused squarely on the big prize.

“Our program is developing. This team is for real,” said LaGrave, a four-year starter.

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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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