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Three years since they began limiting Far East High School Wrestling Tournaments to Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific teams and eliminated longtime participating international schools, mixed feelings remain among DODDS coaches about the move.

Some feel the change benefits DODDS wrestlers and teams by making the field more balanced, while others say they miss the higher level of competition that came with international schools teams’ presence.

“The competition is more even. There is parity,” said coach Brian Kitts of Yokota. “But … we’re better with the international schools there. It has diminished a little bit. Both arguments are valid.”

DODDS-Pacific began limiting Far East tournaments in cross country, tennis and wrestling to DODDS-only fields starting in the fall of 2004 to make them more manageable for tournament organizers, DODDS officials said when the decision was made.

Until the 2004 Far East wrestling tournament, coaches said it was easy to figure out which teams would go through for team championship glory — St. Mary’s (six titles), ASIJ (four titles), Kubasaki (Pacific-record 20 titles) and Nile C. Kinnick (six titles).

Kitts ran the Far East tournaments the last year international schools were present and the first year without.

Tournaments segregated by enrollment, Class A and Class AA events in basketball, soccer and volleyball, remained open to international schools.

With St. Mary’s and ASIJ no longer in the mix, it makes for a “wide open” chase for individual gold medals and team honors, Kubasaki coach Terry Chumley said.

“You don’t really know what to expect,” Chumley said. “It depends on who brings it in the three days, that’s really the bottom line.”

On the other hand, some coaches feel the absence of international schools lowers the overall competition level.

“I would have love to have won the Far East title with all the big teams there,” said coach Steve Schrock of defending Far East team champion Kadena.

But not having St. Mary’s, ASIJ and others on hand makes it “difficult to decide which teams to focus on,” Seoul-American coach Julian Harden said. “It’s kind of hard to do matchups. It makes it a lot harder from a coaching perspective.”

In the individual freestyle tournament, one school may be strong at the upper weights, such as Robert D. Edgren with returning Far East 168-pound champ Kevin McDonald, or Zama American with its powerful middleweights, including unbeaten 148-pounder Adam Godfrey. Some schools might sport just one sure thing, such as E.J. King and 135-pounder David Heitstuman.

They and others could end up “stealing points,” coaches said, from pre-tourney favorites.

The team dual-meet competition, Harden said, could be the most exciting in the tournament’s 32-year history, since all 11 schools will field at least eight wrestlers. “That’s up for grabs,” Harden said. “If you can field a full squad, you stand a chance.”

Schrock acknowledged that Kadena enters this year’s tournament, starting Thursday at Old Thew Gym at Japan’s Yokosuka Naval Base, bearing the defending champion’s bull’s-eye. But it’s something the Panthers are used to, he said.

“I thought we carried a bull’s-eye last year. I heard everybody say they were gunning for Kadena,” Schrock said.

Chumley’s Dragons won the Okinawa Activities Council season series from Kadena for the first time in three years.

“I think we’re in the mix. We have a pretty solid team this year,” she said of a squad boasting former Far East champs Scott Wood and Matt Maza.

Schrock also brings two former Far East champions, Brandon McCullough and Jacob Bloom, to the table on a team strong in the middle and lower weights.

“I like our lineup,” he said. “If they wrestle as they’re capable, it should be a good tournament.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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