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For years — no, for decades — Kadena languished as Okinawa’s “other” wrestling team behind established power Kubasaki, which has 20 Far East tournament titles and 22 island championships to its credit.

Now, the roles are reversed.

On the heels of its first Far East tournament championship, its third straight island title and a second-place finish in January’s “Beast of the Far East” tournament, the Panthers bear the mantle of “the” team on Okinawa.

“We feel the pressure,” said Steve Schrock, in his ninth season of coaching the Panthers. “It’s good pressure but we feel it. We know everybody will be gunning for us. But you won’t see a drop-off in our energy level. If anything, you’ll see an increase. Now, we know we can do it. … You can feel the difference in intensity level in the practice room. We got over that hump.”

Such heady talk from Schrock would have been unimaginable even last season. Kadena’s wrestling program was on the verge of folding when Schrock offered to take the coaching post in 1996-97 but the Panthers’ streak of 90 losses in 91 dual meets to Kubasaki didn’t end until three seasons ago.

Now, the Panthers have won their last nine dual meets with Kubasaki, including their 32-25 victory in the Far East tournament dual-meet championship last February at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

Much of the cadre responsible for that school first returns, including former Far East tournament gold medalists Jacob Bloom and Brandon McCullough. But, Schrock said, “It’s just too soon to say we’re contending for a repeat. Too many good programs, too many good coaches out there … so many things could go wrong.”

Kubasaki boasts returning 101-pound champion Scott Wood and 2005 129-pound champion Matt Maza. Also in the conversation is 2005 dual-meet runner-up Nile C. Kinnick of Japan with returning heavyweight champion Phil Ergus, 2004 dual-meet champion Seoul American and Kinnick’s DODDS-Japan rival Yokota.

Overcoming what Schrock characterizes as a “wide-open” Far East field will take wrestlers “instrinsically motivated to succeed, who know what to do, know what’s expected, are never late, listen when we school up,” Schrock said.

Coaching continuity is a plus: McCullough’s father, Tom, Schrock’s main assistant for four seasons, is “somebody else I can rely on and trust,” Schrock said.

Add the support of the school administration, he said, and “you can’t ask for a better situation.”

‘Beast’ tournament canceled because of scheduling conflictSchrock and other coaches did express disappointment that the “Beast” tournament, a major prep for Far East the past few years, will not take place this season.

Officials at host Nile C. Kinnick in Japan cited a scheduling conflict. It had been slated for Jan. 20 but came up against other athletic events on the base and no gyms on Yokosuka Naval Base, including the high school, were available, Kinnick athletic director Nicolas Hindie said. No other weekends were available in the run-up to Far East, scheduled for Feb. 15-17 at Yokosuka.

The tournament was used as a “measuring stick” leading up to Far East, Seoul American coach Julian Harden said. “It gave us an idea of what we needed to work on, what moves we could work and couldn’t work. … I have no other way of preparing for Far East. That’s a huge blow.”

Some coaches, including Yokota’s Brian Kitts, felt “Beast” had gotten too big. Twelve teams entered the tournament last year, wrestling went well into the evening and four wrestlers were hospitalized with injuries.

“It got to be too much,” Kitts said.

Hindie acknowledged those concerns.

“It is true it’s a lot of matches,” Hindie said, “kids wrestle a lot, kids did get hurt and it is a concern. Different coaches’ points of view.”

Schrock said he and Kubasaki coach Terry Chumley are exploring ways to compensate.

“We have other options,” Schrock said, suggesting that Harden and perhaps Osan American travel to Okinawa during the season for a triangular or quad meet.

“If coaches and wrestlers want it badly enough … it makes us all better.”

Far East wrestling capsulesJapan

Yokota PanthersYokota Air BaseCoach: Brian Kitts, third season.2006 Far East tournament finish: Fourth individual freestyle (48 points), fifth dual meet.Wrestlers to watch: Kyle Shimabukuro, Sr., 168; Robert Rodell, Jr., middleweight (fourth at 115 in 2006 Far East); Darnell Murphy, Jr., middleweight; Kenny McInnis, Jr., middleweight; Nick Guzman, So., lightweight (sixth at 108 in 2006 Far East); Mike Host, So., lightweight; Mark Meade, So., lightweight; Andrew Conkling, So., middleweight (fifth at 158 in 2006 Far East); Bryce Keenom, Jr., heavyweight.

Nile C. Kinnick Red DevilsYokosuka Naval BaseCoach: Duke Alexander, first season.2006 Far East tournament finish: Second individual freestyle (58 points), dual meet bronze.Wrestlers to watch: Phil Ergus, Sr., heavyweight (defending Far East gold medalist); Chris Sanders, Sr., 180 (runner-up in 2006 Far East); Terance Sanders, Jr., 141 (sixth at 135 in 1006 Far East); Lloyd Stipe, Sr., 115; Byron Stipe, So., 101 (sixth in 2006 Far East); Andrew Preston, Sr., 158 (third in 2006 Far East).

Zama American TrojansCamp Zama/Atsugi Naval Air FacilityCoach: George Nowells, first season.2006 Far East tournament team finish: Tied for ninth individual freestyle (11 points), sixth dual meet.Wrestlers to watch: John Leipheimer III, Sr., 148; Michael Palomino, So.; Daniel Polaski, Jr., 168 (sixth at 158 in 2006 Far East); Nick Perry, Jr., 122 (third at 115 in 2006 Far East); Josh Johnson, Jr., 135; Adam Godfrey, Jr, 141 (fifth at 135 in 2006 Far East).

E.J. King CobrasSasebo Naval BaseCoach: Thomas Wright, third season.2006 Far East tournament team finish: Seventh individual freestyle (24 points).Wrestlers to watch: David Heitstuman, Jr., 135 (runner-up at 129 in 2006 Far East); Randy Rivera, Jr., 141.

Robert D. Edgren EaglesMisawa Air BaseCoach: Justin Edmonds, third season.2006 Far East tournament team finish: Sixth individual freestyle (30 points).Wrestlers to watch: Kevin McDonald, Jr., 168 (defending Far East gold medalist); Andrew Blankenship, Jr., 141 (defending Far East 135 gold medalist); David Leh, Sr., 215 (bronze in 2006 Far East); Frederick Lange, So., 135.

South Korea

Seoul American FalconsYongsan GarrisonCoach: Julian Harden, 15th season.2006 Far East tournament team finish: Fifth individual freestyle (46 points), fourth dual meet.Wrestlers to watch: Andrew So., Sr., 101 (fifth in 2006 Far East); James Nutter, Jr., 115 (runner-up in 2006 Far East); Daniel O’Connor, Sr., 141 (fourth in 2006 Far East); Peter Madsen, Sr., 148 (fifth in 2006 Far East); Clark Campbell, Sr., 168 (runner-up in 2006 Far East); Charles Jones, Sr., 180 (bronze in 2006 Far East); Madison Mendez, Jr., 168.

Osan American CougarsOsan Air BaseCoach: Charles Tadlock, seventh season.2006 Far East tournament team finish: Tied for ninth individual freestyle (11 points).Wrestlers to watch: Carlos Albaladejo, Sr., 168 (fourth at 158 at 2006 Far East); Emily Albonetti, So., 108; Jesse Crockett, So., 215 (sixth in 2006 Far East); Tyler Perry, So.

Taegu American WarriorsCamp GeorgeCoach: Bill Riggs, first season.2006 Far East tournament finish: 11th individual freestyle (0 points).Wrestlers to watch: Greg Jones, 135:141 (2006 Far East quarterfinalist); Andrew Davenport, 129:135 (2006 Far East quarterfinalist).

Okinawa

Kadena PanthersKadena Air BaseCoach: Steve Schrock, ninth season.2006 Far East tournament finish: Defending individual freestyle, dual meet champion.Wrestlers to watch: Jacob Bloom, Jr., 129:135 (defending Far East 129 gold medalist); Brandon McCullough, Sr., 135:141 (2005 Far East 129 gold medalist, runner-up at 135 in 2006 Far East); Angelo Smith, Sr., 180:215; Tyler Broome, Fr., 180:215; Chris Hoshaw, Jr., 122:129 (runner-up at 108 in 2006 Far East); Drake Robertson, So., 115:122 (fourth at 101 in 2006 Far East).

Kubasaki DragonsCamp FosterCoach: Terry Chumley, fifth season.2006 Far East tournament finish: Individual freestyle bronze; dual meet runner-up.Wrestlers to watch: Scott Wood., So., 108 (defending Far East 101 gold medalist); Coty Hampton, Jr., 115 (third at 108 in 2006 Far East); Daniel Sly, Sr., 122; Matt Maza, Sr., 129:135 (2005 Far East 129 gold medalist; bronze at 129 in 2006 Far East); Jake Haynes, So., 141 (sixth in 2006 Far East); Randy Candelaria, So., 158; Ricky Jones, Sr. (fifth in 2006 Far East), 180; Bucky Shaw, Jr., heavyweight (fourth in 2006 Far East).

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