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The distasteful memory still lingers for Zama American’s Ryota Nishiyori.

A year ago, the Trojans stormed into first place in their round-robin pool in the Class AA Far East High School Boys Soccer Tournament on Okinawa, only to stumble to eighth place after three straight losses.

“We’ve seen it go away right before our eyes, when we could have been the best team out there,” said Nishiyori, a senior sweeper among a handful of Trojans who’ve had to live with that memory since last May 31.

Rather than cry about it, the Trojans did something.

Zama bulldozed its way to the top of the Japan Soccer League standings with a 2-1 victory over previously unbeaten Yokota on Tuesday.

“Four years of being under them blew up right here,” said Nishiyori, who had never beaten Yokota in four seasons.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Just wanting it more.”

It was a huge JSL victory, butloftier goals are at hand.

“This was one of the ones we wanted, but it’s one step toward winning it all,” said Zama senior striker Jimmy Flatley, alluding to next week’s Class AA tournament on Okinawa.

Nishiyori says the Trojans took a single-minded approach coming into the season.

“It’s all about want,” he said. “We’ve been wanting it more than anybody, especially the four-year starters and returners. [Losing in the playoffs last year] turned into our motivation this year.”

The Trojans hope to ride that motivation to their first Class AA title. They’ll join nine other teams from around the Pacific at Kubasaki High School on Okinawa for the tournament, which begins Monday.

Nine teams will compete for the Class AA girls championship at Camp Zama, Japan. Both tournaments conclude Friday.

Winning either tournament has been difficult for schools outside Okinawa. Island teams, including boys and girls defending champion Kubasaki, have won every title since the event’s inception in 1998.

Many Kadena and Kubasaki players practice or compete against military teams and Japanese teams throughout the year.

“If nothing else, everybody here plays soccer year-round for fun, and if you do it for fun, you’ll like it,” said Kadena senior striker Scott Knutson, a two-time All-Far East selection. “They play Marine teams, Japanese teams, they go to camps in the states in the summer. That will only make you better.”

Marine dependents who play for Kubasaki “come from places that are soccer hotbeds,” said Kubasaki sophomore striker Erin Foote, the 2002 girls MVP, referring to Virginia, North Carolina and California, where Marine camps abound.

Despite the advantages, neither Okinawa school thinks it is a shoo-in for a title.

“It’s going to take lots of hustle and teamwork, no matter whether it’s us or Kubasaki,” Knutson said. “I’d like to see [the titles] stay on Okinawa.”

“[It will also take] Chemistry and continuous hard work, the way we’ve been working on Okinawa for six years since Far East started,” added Foote, who’s lived on Okinawa since the title run began.

Others don’t consider the island teams invincible.

“Any team is beatable,” said senior striker Go Yamada of Japan’s Nile C. Kinnick, which finished ninth in 2002. “There’s no guaranteed winner. Just one or two people who go to summer camps can’t determine the whole game.”

But how can a non-Okinawa team break through?

“Teamwork, commitment, desire and ambition to win,” Yamada said, adding that psychology is critical.

“If you get scared on that field, you lose. No matter who you’re up against, you have to want it bad, want to win, want to score, but it has to be done with all 11 players. It doesn’t matter if they’re last year’s Far East champions. They’re still beatable.”

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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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