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Kadena's Amy Lopes
Kadena's Amy Lopes (Dave Ornauer / S&S file photo)

Bit by bit, year by year, the Kadena Panthers have crept toward the top of the Far East high school tennis heap.

Now, as the Far East tournament makes the transition from a biennial to an annual event, Kadena is primed to make a run at school history.

Not since 1989 has a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific team won a Far East team title. Not since 1995 has a DODDS-Pacific player won a singles gold medal.

Kadena, with its sophomore girls star Amy Lopes, hopes to end that dry spell Nov. 10-12 at Kadena Air Base’s Risner Tennis Complex on Okinawa.

“We’re motivated,” said Lopes, who finished fourth in the girls main singles draw at Far East last year. “I’m hungry.”

They have reason to be both, since the past two Far Easts, in 2001 and 2003, have been exercises in frustration for the Panthers.

They finished fifth in 2001, trailing fourth-place Nile C. Kinnick of Japan by two points and runner-up Seoul American by 10.

“We were much better last year,” said coach Hoa Nguyen of a team that trailed champion American School In Japan by 43 points, 88-45, but still finished better than 15 of the 17 teams.

“We can win it this time,” senior Lori Kanikkeberg said.

“There’s only one logical place to go from here,” Nguyen said. “And we have the weapons.”

Weapons such as Lopes, who bulldozed her way through the main draw until falling in the semifinals to eventual runner-up Amalia Nilsson of ASIJ 6-0, 6-3. In a third-place battle of hard hitters, Lopes succumbed to ASIJ’s Malika Hayashi 6-1, 6-3.

“Maybe the inexperience showed,” said junior Anthony Soroka, who reached the boys round of 16 last year — the farthest of any DODDS-Pacific boys players. “She was better than the other girl [Nilsson]. She has the experience now. She knows what not to do. She won’t be as nervous.”

Kanikkeberg and Lopes could become a formidable team, Nguyen said, as might Soroka and Travis Deng, who like Kanikkeberg will play in his third Far East.

“Lori’s mature and confident,” Nguyen said. “Amy is only a sophomore and will look to her for leadership. She has the passion and skill, Lori has the maturity and confidence. Mix them together, that’s deadly.”

Soroka “sneaked up” on the Far East field last year, Nguyen added. “Then if we can work on Travis’ forehand, we’ll be all right.”

The timing was good for Far East to become an annual tournament, a decision made by DODDS-Pacific’s Far East Activities Council at its fall meeting in 2003.

Now, Nguyen said, DODDS-Pacific teams can have the luxury of keeping their players year in and year out, instead of watching them play other sports in non-Far East years, as happened in the past.

“It makes a lot of difference” in a coach’s ability to build teams, Nguyen said. “You keep the same players every year and work toward that goal. Now, they can work toward it every year, instead of every two years.”

Still, Nguyen, Lopes and the Panthers still face formidable obstacles. International schools from Tokyo have ruled the roost in Far East tournaments every time but once since their inception in 1978.

Populating those teams are experienced players, many of whom cut their teeth on tennis during middle school years and sometimes stick around until graduation, providing a continuity base. A handful even play tennis year-round, taking lessons from club pros or playing for club teams.

“I’m a seasonal tennis player,” Deng said, “and that’s a big difference between people who dedicated themselves to getting better year-round.”

All DODDS’ programs are transient nature; players routinely come and go every two to three years.

“The international schools have a lot more continuity,” said Bruce Barker, who coaches Osan American in South Korea. “Their kids tend to stay from the eighth grade on. ... We have kids who rotate every couple of years. Many are underclassmen who are going to be gone next year, and that kind of hurts … all the DODDS schools.”

Also, Kadena’s only regular-season opponent is Kubasaki, and the Dragons only have a couple of boys players and suited up just one girls player a season ago.

“You can’t step up your game if there’s nobody else to play,” Kanikkeberg said. “You can even get worse. Tennis involves a lot of mechanical skills that need work.”

Kadena still plans to press forward, Nguyen said: “We’re better, stronger than we what we were. We can do this.”

DODDS-Pacific tennis teams, players to watch in 2004

Osan American, South Korea

Returning All-Far East senior Su Chi Knisely teamed with Amy Gordon to finish second in tournament’s doubles draw. Junior Amanda Reiff helped Osan’s girls finish third in Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference last year. Junior Matt Guertin was all-conference last year.

Zama American, Japan

Trojans hope to bank on senior Matt Shakespeare, part of fourth-place Far East doubles team, along with sophomore Cristina Eustaquio, who won girls consolation gold. Deep and experienced.

E.J. King, Japan

Cobras return entire boys team and most of girls team that won DODDS-Japan tournament last season at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. Seniors Mark Bote and John Cruz took second in Far East boys consolation doubles.

Kadena, Okinawa

Panthers return sophomore Amy Lopes, who finished fourth in Far East girls main singles draw, and four-year starter Lori Kanikkeberg atop girls lineup, which helped Kadena finish second at Far East last year. Boys’ lineup also deep, including Anthony Soroka, who reached round of 16, and three-year starter Travis Deng, with two Far Easts under his belt.

Nile C. Kinnick, Japan

Red Devils welcome back their top three singles players from last year, senior John Will, juniors Eric Su, Airamy Rivera, Katerina Herrera and Joyce Cao and sophomore Dennis Hirata. Could make noise, both in DODDS-Japan and Far East.

Pusan American, South Korea

Bloodlines follow this team, with senior Mary and junior James Edwards, seven-year veterans of the game, back to bolster the Panthers’ lineup.

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