Senior running backs David McCowan (10) and Keith Loving have been instrumental in leading the Kadena Islanders into the top spot in the Okinawa Activities Council football standings.

Senior running backs David McCowan (10) and Keith Loving have been instrumental in leading the Kadena Islanders into the top spot in the Okinawa Activities Council football standings. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — If running backs are the driving force behind an offense, then David McCowan and Keith Loving are sharing the wheel for the Kadena Islanders, steering them to a 4-0 record and first place in the Okinawa Activities Council.

Before Loving ripped through the Kadena Bucs in the Islanders’ 27-14 victory on Tuesday, the seniors had similar numbers, including an identical number of carries. Loving’s 21 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown Tuesday gives him 447 yards on 71 rushes with six scores for the season, while McCowan has 328 yards on 60 carries and one touchdown this year.

With the regular season half over, the team is favored to capture its first league championship since it shared the title with the Kubasaki Samurai in 1996. That would send the Islanders to the Rising Sun Bowl, and they believe they can knock off four-time champion Yokota of Japan.

McCowan and Loving, said coach Sergio Mendoza, “have been instrumental ... not just in execution in practice, but driving the team in games. They want that championship.

“We know we can play better ball,” Mendoza said. “That could be a strength. They’re not celebrating anything.”

Burned in McCowan’s mind are two late-season losses to the eventual island champion Kadena Buccaneers last year.

“We lost sight of our goals,” he said. “That’s a motivation to not let it happen again.”

The Islanders appear to be a different machine this season. That, said the running backs, also is due to the offensive line.

“We may be the car, but they’re the wheels,” Loving said. “They drive us. They penetrate. They know where the gaps are. They know where we’re going on every play. Show us the light.”

Added McCowan, “It takes a team. We’re just trying to help the team.

“Our philosophy is to win play by play,” he said. “Let’s win the play. The game is secondary. If we execute play by play, the rest will take care of itself.”

Mendoza noted the marked improvement of each of his backs during the offseason. Both Loving and McCowan ran track and attended summer football camps.

“They’re incredibly quick,” he said. “They were running sub-11s [in the 100 meters] last spring. They’re probably faster than that [now]. And they’re cut, they’re benching 1½ times their weight.”

The two bring an intensity to the field “that’s wonderful for a coach to see,” Mendoza said. “They challenge each other to be better football players. It’s a healthy competition. ... They’re very unselfish. As long as the team wins is what matters.”

The senior pair aren’t just a tandem on the field, they’re practically inseparable off the field. They hang out with the same friends, lift weights together and watch college ball on television.

“We’re like brothers,” McCowan said. “We do everything together.”

Where they differ might be in their running styles, Mendoza said.

“Keith has great eyes. He sees seams and hits those seams. He’ll hit a hole and be gone for 20 yards,” he said. “David gets to the corner, glides fast, and he’ll power right through you.”

In front of them is a line that had to overcome the loss of center Cole Maxey, who transferred to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Filling his slot is senior Grady Pennell.

“The line is listening and learning basic techniques and executing well in practice,” Mendoza said. “We’ve had some kids who have stepped up and filled some gaps. Grady is doing an awesome job of leading the line.”

There’s still plenty of work left to do, three more regular-season games — including a second game this week — plus the postseason, with the league title game slated for Nov. 4.

“I’d love to bring that gold home,” McCowan said of a Nov. 13 road trip that could include derailing that Rising Sun Bowl express known as the Yokota Panthers.

“I think it can be done. Dedication. Bring that line. Win every play. If we do that, we’ll make that flight home a happy one.”

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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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