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Kadena Panthers freshman wing Taylor Russell scored five goals and assisted on three others entering next week's Far East High School Girls Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament at Yokota High School, Japan.

Kadena Panthers freshman wing Taylor Russell scored five goals and assisted on three others entering next week's Far East High School Girls Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament at Yokota High School, Japan. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

Kadena Panthers freshman wing Taylor Russell scored five goals and assisted on three others entering next week's Far East High School Girls Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament at Yokota High School, Japan.

Kadena Panthers freshman wing Taylor Russell scored five goals and assisted on three others entering next week's Far East High School Girls Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament at Yokota High School, Japan. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

Kadena Panthers sophomore wing Kyla Feeney brings totals of 17 goals and 15 assists into next week's soccer tournament.

Kadena Panthers sophomore wing Kyla Feeney brings totals of 17 goals and 15 assists into next week's soccer tournament. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

Between them, Kadena’s boys and girls soccer teams take a combined 27-3-8 record into their title defenses in next week’s Far East Class AA tournaments.

But behind the gaudy records lay a long, rocky rebuilding path. The girls replaced seven starters with mostly freshmen and sophomores, while the boys had to plug holes vacated by three All-Tournament players, including two MVPs.

That and improvement by other teams in the tournaments might make Kadena seem less bulletproof than at any point during the Panthers’ recent run of success.

“People on the outside looking in” might feel that way, first-year coach Tom McKinney said of a Kadena boys team that went 7-3-5, coming off three Class AA titles in four years. “We could be vulnerable. But Kadena has always had a history of putting together competitive programs.”

“We’re very young. This is a young group that has never been to a Far East or to a championship game,” coach Hoa Nguyen said of his Kadena girls team, which has won three straight AA titles and went 20-0-3 this season.

Twelve girls teams will duke it out at Yokota High School in Japan, while a 12-team boys field takes the pitch at Kadena High on Okinawa. Both tournaments run Monday-Friday.

While Kadena’s teams cobbled together winning records despite the rebuilding, other teams loom as potential obstacles in the way of the Panthers continuing their winning ways.

DODDS-Japan and Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools girl powers Yokota, Kinnick and American School In Japan and rising Zama American spent all season knocking each other around the pitch, playing “a higher caliber” of soccer than last year, Yokota coach Matt Whipple said.

“No teams will run over anybody,” Kinnick assistant coach Go Yamada added.

With so many teams having improved their level of play, coach Chris Kelly of 2006 runner-up Kubasaki of Okinawa feels the boys tournament could be “wide open.”

Kubasaki and Kadena have come “back to the pack,” he said. “If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’ll have a chance to be embarrassed. Any game could be won by any team.”

Among the teams that could contend to end Kadena’s championship runs:

Seoul American’s boys (9-4-1), with junior midfielder Chris Churchwell (10 goals, 5 assists), and the Falcons’ girls (11-4), paced by juniors Erica Anglade (18, 5) and Angye Law (11, 5) and sophomore Jessie Bolander (12, 5) started slowly but came on strong at season’s end.Yokota’s boys (18-4-1), with two-time All-Far East midfielder Stefan Welch (21 goals, 11 assists), repeated as DODDS-Japan champions. Yokota’s girls (11-1-2) enjoyed the school’s best regular season, paced by sophomore midfielder Lauryn Thomas (18, 16) and All-Far East strikers Daniya Nixon (13, 8) and Breyana Anderson (23, 7) and goalkeeper Abbi Dacosta.Zama American’s girls, 8-12-1 and last place in Class AA in 2006, improved to 10-6-1 thanks to the Fab Freshmen, Aubrey Ashliman (40 goals, 9 assists), Whitney McWherter (12, 7) and Anna Park (10, 5).Last year’s DODDS-Japan and Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools girls champion Kinnick (13-3-2) overcame a slow start and rode the scoring and playmaking of Tara Bartkowski (27, 10), Frances Zukowski (21, 7) and Mariko Wood (7, 15) into contention.On the international school front, Christian Academy In Japan’s boys, 2005 Class AA champions, return 13 of 15 players from last year’s third-place unit. Leo Kobayashi scored 18 goals and the Knights went 9-1. Last year’s girls runner-up American School In Japan (7-2) earned the Kanto Plain league title behind Morgan Bridgman (9 goals) and Laura Inglesrud (7).“The target is definitely on our back, ours and Kadena’s,” Kelly said.

“You want to win a championship, you have to go through every obstacle,” Nguyen said.

To overcome those obstacles in the boys’ field, McKinney collected stars from other sports, such as wrestler Brandon McCullough in goal and basketball player Jamil Barney at fullback.

“They’ve tasted defeat, they know how to win and they know what they have to do,” McKinney said. “True athletes will step up with the pressure is on.”

That no off-island team has ever won a Class AA tournament played on Okinawa makes little difference, Kelly said. “I would love for that trend to continue,” he said. “It’s to our advantage to be home, but we still have to play well.”

CAJ could loom as the biggest threat to the reign of the Kadena boys; indeed, the Knights could end up being the ones on a title run, having captured the crown in 2005.

“They’re so explosive,” said coach Tim Pujol, whose Yokota boys lost to CAJ 4-1, 5-1 and 1-0 during the season. “They can put them (goals) up in a hurry. There’s not as much size on this year’s team, but they do have the skill and speed that that (2005) team had.”

Defense and goalkeeper Helen Schrock might be more important to the hopes of the Kadena girls, Nguyen said, than the offensive savvy of strikers Jen Abel (66 goals, 24 assists) and Kyla Feeney (17, 15) and midfielder Kelsey Decker (5, 25).

“Defense wins championships,” Nguyen said. “You can’t rely on just Jen and Kyla scoring or Kelsey controlling the midfield. Defense and the goalkeeper have to step up.”

Class AA boys

Dates: May 21-25.Host: Kadena High SchoolSite: Upper Field and Lower Field, Kadena High School, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Participating teams: Kadena Panthers, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa (champions in 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2006); Kadena junior varsity Panthers; Kubasaki Dragons, Camp Foster, Okinawa; Yokota Panthers, Yokota Air Base, Japan; Zama American Trojans, Camp Zama, Japan; Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils, Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan; Seoul American Falcons, Yongsan Garrison, South Korea; Guam High Panthers, Nimitz Hill, Guam; Christian Academy In Japan Knights, Tokyo; Hong Kong International Dragons, Hong Kong; Okinawa Christian International Crusaders, Yomitan, Okinawa; Robert D. Edgren Eagles, Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Returning All-Far East players: Stefan Welch, Yokota (two-time selection); Leo Kobayashi, Christian Academy In Japan; Chris Tobiere (2005), Robert D. Edgren.

Format: Single round-robin, two pools of six teams each, first two days. 30-minute halves, five-minute intermission. Wins count for three points, tie for one point and loss for no points, plus one point for teams scoring up to three goals regardless of outcome. Ties settled by penalty-kick shootout. Tiebreaker procedure for seeding purposes: 1) Head-to-head, 2) goal differential among teams involved in tie, 3) goals against among three teams involved in tie, 4) coin toss. Single-elimination tournament with consolation bracket last three days, 40-minute halves, 10-minute intermission. Overtime involves two 5- or 10-minute halves to be determined, no “golden goal,” followed by penalty-kick shootout, if necessary. Mercy rule applies to all matches; match will end if one team takes 10-goal lead, regardless of time remaining.

Schedule: Opening ceremony at 8 a.m. Monday at Upper Field. First round-robin matches at 9 a.m. Monday. Last round-robin matches at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday. First playoff matches at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Championship match at 3 p.m. Friday at Lower Field, followed by awards ceremony.

Awards: Banner and traveling trophy to champion team, medals to players on top three teams, Team Sportsmanship Award, individual MVP, Golden Boot, Outstanding Defender and skills competition awards, 16-player All-Tournament team.

Class AA girls

Dates: May 21-25.Host: Yokota High School.Site: Bonk Field, Yokota High School, and Yokota Middle School Field, Yokota Air Base, Japan.

Participating teams: Kadena Panthers, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa (champions in 1998, 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006); Kubasaki Dragons, Camp Foster, Okinawa; Yokota Panthers, Yokota Air Base, Japan; Zama American Trojans, Camp Zama, Japan; Zama American junior varsity Trojans; Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils, Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan; Seoul American Falcons, Yongsan Garrison, South Korea; Guam High Panthers, Nimitz Hill, Guam; American School In Japan Mustangs, Tokyo; Hong Kong International Dragons, Hong Kong; Seisen International Phoenix, Tokyo; Robert D. Edgren Eagles, Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Returning All-Far East players: Jennifer Abel (two-time selection), Kadena; Kara Koeneke, Kubasaki; Breyana Anderson, Daniya Nixon, Yokota; Mariko Wood, Nile C. Kinnick; Angela Vandersys, Seoul American (Class A with Pusan American in 2005); Alyssa Rodriguez (reigning Class A MVP), Mia Angelella (Class A in 2006), Robert D. Edgren.

Format: Single round-robin, two pools of six teams each, first two days, 30-minute halves, 5-minute intermission, ties decided by penalty-kick shootout. Wins count for two points, ties for one point and losses for no points, plus one point for teams scoring up to three goals regardless of outcome. Tiebreaker procedure for seeding purposes: 1) Head-to-head, 2) goal differential among teams involved in tie, 3) fewest total cards, yellow (caution) and red (sent off), 4) coin toss. Single-elimination tournament with consolation bracket last three days, 40-minute halves, 10-minute intermission. Overtime involves two 5-minute halves, no “golden goal,” followed by penalty-kick shootout, if necessary. Mercy rule applies to all matches; match will end if one team takes 10-goal lead, regardless of time remaining.

Schedule: Opening ceremony at 8 a.m. Monday at Bonk Field. First round-robin matches at 9 a.m. Monday. Last round-robin matches 4:45 p.m. Tuesday. First playoff matches 8 a.m. Wednesday. Championship match 3 p.m. Friday, followed by awards ceremony.

Awards: Trophies to top six teams, banner and individual awards to champion team, Team Sportsmanship Award, individual Most Outstanding Player, Golden Boot and Outstanding Goalkeeper awards, 15-player All-Tournament team.

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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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