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For what’s seems like an eternity, the Pusan American boys basketball team has been the main course for lavish victory feasts by league opponents in Korea and in Far East Class A tournaments.

The Panthers, who won their only Class A title in 1983 and haven’t enjoyed a whiff of the final since, aim to turn the tables this week.

“I’m convinced we can,” Panthers coach Phillip Loyd said.

Loyd has good reason, given Pusan’s 14-1 record against Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference opposition and 21-4 overall mark.

Loyd’s charges count among their achievements the KAIAC regular-season and tournament titles, and they even won a Christmas holiday tournament among post intramural teams at Camp Hialeah.

It’s a major turnaround from the Panthers’ days as a doormat. In Loyd’s previous two seasons, Pusan went 18-30 and finished sixth and fifth in Class A.

“When I got here, Pusan didn’t have a good reputation as a team,” Loyd said. “Wherever we went, it was as a stepchild, ‘Oh, we have to include Pusan in this.’”

What’s turned it around, Loyd said, is a core of experienced veterans who’ve assumed a “can-do” attitude in response to a challenge by Loyd to prove they could get better. “They accepted the challenge that they could become better players,” Loyd said.

Inside players Michael Lee and David Ludwig “have grown exponentially and are dependable and come through in big games,” he said.

Then there’s the junior playmaker-scorer tandem of Moses Joh and James Edwards, whom Loyd calls “one of the best point guards and one of the best all-around players in the Pacific.”

“And we have role players who have accepted their roles and improved their skills,” Loyd said. “From the first year, there’s a distinct difference. They can all play on somebody’s team and contribute valuable minutes.”

The games against military company-level opposition played an important part in the team’s development.

“They embraced us and helped increase our skill level,” Loyd said. “It prepares us so that we’re not overwhelmed. ... We can withstand the shock of better players, focus and play our ball.”

The road to end that 22-year Class A title drought will not be easy — figuratively or literally.

For starters, the Panthers will play their first games outside of Korea this week at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

“It doesn’t matter where,” Loyd said. “The court is going to be the same. We can play anywhere with anyone.”

Then there’s the challenge of facing 2004 runner-up E.J. King, with 2004 co-MVP Draonne Johnson, along with KAIAC rival Osan American, the rebuilding 2003 champion which remains dangerous with scoring threat Chris Durham.

Defending champion St. Paul Christian of Guam brings back many of its components from last season. Faith Academy, a small school which has played at the Class AA level in recent years, returns to Class A for the first time since 1997.

“We have to step up to these guys,” Loyd said. “We have anticipated this. Can we stay in the ring with these guys and can we win the championship? We first have to execute on the court. If we answer that question, the second one will take care of itself.”

Far East Boys Class A Basketball Tournament

Dates: Feb. 21-25, 2005.

Host: Matthew C. Perry High School, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.

Site: Ironworks Fitness and Sports Center, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan.

Participating teams: Osan American Cougars, Osan Air Base, South Korea; St. Paul Christian Warriors, Tamuning, Guam (defending champion; E.J. King Cobras, Sasebo Naval Base, Japan; Seoul International Tigers, Songnam, South Korea; Pusan American Panthers, Camp Hialeah, South Korea; Taegu American Warriors, Camp George, South Korea; Matthew C. Perry Samurai, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan; International Christian-Seoul Guardians; Faith Academy Vanguards, Rizal, Philippines; International Christian-Uijongbu Eagles, Uijongbu, South Korea; Taejon Christian International Dragons, Taejon, South Korea.

Returning All-Far East players: Draonne Johnson (two-time selection), Mark Bote, E.J. King; James Edwards (two-time selection), Moses Joh, Pusan American; Tristan Tapia, Art Hameister, St. Paul Christian; Wendell Espy, Taegu American.

Format: Single round-robin, 11 teams in three pools, two of four each and one of three, first day. Modified double-elimination playoffs with consolation, all 11 teams eligible, last four days.

Schedule: Opening ceremony 8 a.m. Monday, Ironworks. First games, 9 a.m. Monday. Playoffs begin, 9 a.m. Tuesday. Championship, 12:30 p.m. Friday, second game if necessary at 2:30 p.m. Awards ceremony after championship. Skills competitions, three-point long-distance shootout and free-throw competition, to be determined.

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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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