After five years of Yokosuka Seahawks dominance, the Misawa Marauders finally take their turn donning the defending champion’s bull’s-eye.
The Marauders open the 2006 U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League campaign Saturday as the last one ended: at home against the Yokota Warriors — whom Misawa defeated 30-21 in August’s league championship Torii Bowl.
The Marauders appear primed for their title defense. They were the only team to score in Saturday’s preseason jamboree, and of their 30 returning players, 20 are starters.
But coach Dwight Abel knows the league’s other three teams will come gunning.
“I’ve told the guys to just take care of business, as we have in the past,” he said. “We have to earn that trophy all over again.”
Yokota at Misawa leads off the three-month regular season, including 10 scheduled weeks of play and two open weeks. The regular season is to end Aug. 12; the semifinal playoffs are Aug. 26; the Torii Bowl, Sept. 2.
The league also welcomes back the Kadena Dragons, the two-time Okinawa Football League champions who’ll play six non-league contests against USFJ-AFL opponents, four at home and two away.
Also, the league is adopting National Federation High School rules, a departure from the NCAA rules the league has used since its start six years ago.
Besides Saturday’s opener, looming large on the Marauders’ schedule is their July 29 contest at Kadena — pitting the defending champions of both the Pacific’s interservice leagues in an “unofficial” Far East championship.
Said Abel: “We know the bull’s-eye is on our back. We’re ready for the challenge.”
Dealing with the pressure means doing things as the Marauders always have, he said: “The same gameplan we always use. Smashmouth football.”
Unlike Misawa, Yokota — which won its first four games the last two seasons but faded in 2004 and lost the 2005 Torii Bowl – views the past as an incentive to take the next step up.
“It makes us more hungry,” first-year coach Jonathon Pitts said. “We want to learn and get better from our mistakes. Being that close, we know we can do it.”
Yokosuka coach Robert Cole hopes his Seahawks have learned from last season that a successful past doesn’t guarantee championship success in the present.
“We let the five [titles] in a row go to our heads,” he said.
In 2005’s preseason jamboree, “we were awfully impressive, but we didn’t carry that into the season. … But we have people who know what’s expected and know what to do.”
The Seahawks and Atsugi Falcons have suffered a common problem in recent years. Many of their key players were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group, which stayed in port during the summer months of 2000 to 2004 but last season got underway in June.
So Cole and Falcons coach Daniel Estrada say they’ve built their team around key personnel assigned to shore units, “so when the ships leave, we don’t take as big a hit,” Estrada said.
Atsugi, losers of 16 straight games dating to the 2003 season, has shed its White Dolphins nickname for its new Falcons moniker, complete with red and black uniforms resembling those of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Estrada says he senses a new attitude among his charges and feels that teams who take Atsugi for granted may be in for a shock.
“We’ve been underdogs for a while,” he said, but “there’s a whole different vibe here. I think we’ll surprise some people.”
Team capsulesMisawa Marauders
Misawa Air Base
2005 record-6-1, .857, 184 points for, 53 points against.
Head coach-Dwight Abel, first season.
Impact players-Jamey Crawford, RB (reigning league MVP); Fred Ellis, QB; Cornelius Walker, SS; Andre Gaston, MLB; Clarence Casey, FS.
Strengths-Entire offensive line returns intact.
Yokota Air Base
2005 record-6-2, .750, 172 points for, 62 against.
Head coach-Jonathon Pitts, first season.
Impact players-Bruce Turner, QB/TE; Jacob Dowdell, QB; Branden Durden, OL; Patrick Piazza, OL; Greg Powell, DT; Mardie Wilson, SS; Corey Fields, CB; Deion Williams, LB; Jarrick Nunn, LB.
Strengths-Defense, experienced veterans on both sides of ball.
Drawbacks-Continuity on offensive line.
Yokosuka Naval Base
2005 record-2-4, .333, 54 points for, 99 points against.
Head coach-Robert Cole, third season.
Base offense-Power I.
Impact players-Brian Pratt, L; Luke Raimo, L; Tim Graves, C, 16th season.
Strengths-Interior size and experience on both sides of ball, confidence in line, team unity.
Drawbacks-Depth issues caused by duty, deployments.
Atsugi Naval Air Facility
2005 record-0-7, .000, 35 points for, 203 points against; 16 straight losses dating back to 2003 season.
Head coach-Daniel Estrada, second season.
Impact players-Greg Thomas, TB; Adrian Knight, DE/LB; Charles Wright, DE; Barry Smith, QB; Dusty St. John, WR; Mario Cruz, WR.
Drawbacks-Depth issues caused by duty, deployments.
2006 scheduleRegular season
Saturday, June 3
Yokota at Misawa, 2 p.m.
Yokosuka at Atsugi, 6 p.m.
Saturday, June 10
Yokota at Atsugi, 6 p.m.
Saturday, June 17
Misawa at Yokosuka, 6 p.m.
Saturday, June 24
Atsugi at Misawa, 2 p.m.
x-Kadena at Yokota, 6 p.m.
Wednesday, June 28
x-Kadena at Atsugi, 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 1
Yokota at Yokosuka, 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 8
Misawa at Yokota, 6 p.m.
x-Atsugi at Kadena, 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 22
Yokosuka at Misawa, 2 p.m.
x-Yokota at Kadena, 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 29
Atsugi at Yokosuka, 6 p.m.
x-Misawa at Kadena, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 5
Misawa at Atsugi, 6 p.m.
Yokosuka at Yokota, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 12
Atsugi at Yokota, 4 p.m.
x-Yokosuka at Kadena, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 26
Saturday, Sept. 2
Championship Torii Bowl
2005 final standings
Atsugi White Dolphins
@x-won regular-season title based on points tiebreaker.