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The Kadena girls basketball team won’t sneak up on anybody this time.

That goes with the territory when you’re the defending champion of the Class AA Far East tournament, which opens Monday at Okinawa’s Camp Foster Field House.

The Lady Panthers boast reigning Most Outstanding Player and two-time All-Far East senior guard Theresa Gittens, All-Far East senior center Katie LaGrave, senior guard/forward Kim Lyle and a supporting cast that includes Liz Cotto and Alison Montes de Oca, who are back from last year’s team.

That also makes them an inviting target. Kadena coach Ken Hudson says his team will have “unique challenges” in defending its crown.

“It means every single day in practice, you have to remember you’re the champions and everybody is going to try to beat you,” he said.

The second-year Kadena coach emphasized “doing everything with a purpose” this season, in practices and games, to keep those contenders at bay.

Among the contenders is Japan’s Nile C. Kinnick. The Lady Red Devils, champions in 2001, are led by senior Carol Tully on what might be coach Henry Falk’s deepest team ever. Kinnick was 23-0 against high school competition this season.

Four-time champion Faith Academy (27-1) of the Philippines won the Class A tournament last February. The Lady Vanguards return three All-Far East players — guard Tami Burke, forward Haley Shaw and reigning Class A MVP Jessica Nelson, a senior guard.

Then, there’s John F. Kennedy of Guam, which fell 44-41 to Kadena in last year’s final. Three veterans, including All-Far East senior Jocelyn Pardilla, return for coach Joe Taitano.

Seoul American of Korea will state its title case with sisters Janel and Demeka Daniels, a pair of transfers. Liz Lally joined Japan’s Robert D. Edgren this year and fueled the Lady Eagles’ to victories in their final four games.

One could argue that Kadena wasn’t the best team on Okinawa — archrival Kubasaki beat the Lady Panthers three times in five regular-season meetings.

“We played each other so many times, I think we know each other’s Social Security numbers,” said Lady Dragons coach Bob Driggs, who’s won three Class AA titles and returned to Kubasaki this year after a 12-season hiatus.

“I know Kinnick is a strong ballclub, so is Faith; they come to the tournament when they have a chance to win it. They’re going to have to show some of these teams who’s going to the top and who’s going to be a spectator.”

To Driggs, that title chase goes through Kadena, which finished third in last month’s Martin Luther King Pacificwide Open tournament — a first for high school squads in the adult military tournament.

“Kadena is the yardstick,” he said. “They’re the returning champion, they have two premier players right off the top ... and a good supporting cast. They showed it last year, and when they get on the court this year, they’ll be ready. Don’t underestimate them.”

Hudson remains confident but hopes to keep his team focused.

“The championship is ours to win. The rest of the field doesn’t have anything to lose,” he said.

“When you have something and everyone wants it, you have to play at a level to not let them have what it is that they’re after. They’re going to be after us, every single minute, every single quarter, every single game. It will come down to who wants it more, willpower and preparation.”

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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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