Kadena seizes early lead, captures eighth D-I title
Stars and Stripes October 28, 2023
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Kai Christy, Ethan Ferch and Kadena’s defense set the table Saturday for an offensive feast that only an outgoing senior running back could love.
Ferch recovered two fumbles and Christy intercepted a pass on Kubasaki’s first three possessions, setting up touchdown runs of 1, 10 and 4 yards by Jeremiah Drummer and the Panthers repeated as Far East Division I football champions, downing the Dragons 35-20.
With the win, Kadena extended its Pacific record of D-I titles to eight, and won the season series from Kubasaki two games to one. The Dragons won the season opener against the Panthers 34-20, but Kadena won two straight from there.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys rebounding from that first loss,” Panthers coach Sergio Mendoza said, adding that at halftime of that game, there was no sadness or disappointment.
“We knew we had something special if we could just lock in,” Mendoza said, adding that the Panthers overcame adversity much of the season, particularly losing starting quarterback Cameron Wilson to injury.
“I’m proud of this program. These guys love each other. Brotherhood is in our veins,” Mendoza said.
The Panthers rode four total fumble recoveries, two interceptions – one taken 18 yards for a touchdown by Erik Puterbaugh –two kick blocks by Austin Lutz and two sacks. “Everyone went 100 percent,” Lutz said.
The three early takeaways were “what started the whole momentum,” Christy said. “That triggered the whole thing.”
That set things up for Drummer, who carried 32 times for 227 yards, including a fourth TD of 5 yards, and quarterback DeShaun Nixon, who was 7-for-11 for 113 yards. Christy had three catches for 57 yards.
“I was aiming for five” touchdown runs, Drummer said. “We got the job done. It was a pleasure playing with these guys in my senior year.”
After falling behind 28-0, the Dragons chipped away at the deficit.
Quarterback Trajon Weaver accounted for two touchdowns, a 4-yard keeper and a 22-yard pass play to Carlos Cadet, who also ran 9 yards for a score. But the mistakes, especially the early ones, did in the Dragons, coach Tony Alvarado said.
“We had to protect the ball and not make mistakes, so right away, we fumbled the ball in the red zone and it continued, over and over, to the point where we were fighting two demons, Kadena and ourselves,” Alvarado said.
Weaver finished 11-for-22 for 144 yards, with his brother Onzei catching four for 80 yards and Cadet four for 26 yards. Cadet also rushed six times for 50 yards and intercepted a pass, one of three Dragons takeaways.
This was the first D-I final since 2019; the last three were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kubasaki was trying for its third D-I title; the last one the Dragons won was in 2013, against the Panthers.
“I’m very proud of how hard our guys worked,” Alvarado said. “I’m just excited to get Far East football back.”
The Panthers have a good young core of players expected back, Mendoza said, including Ferch, the son of DODEA educators, who’s just a freshman. “We have a good group of young players who’ve learned a lot from the seniors who’ll be leaving,” Mendoza said.
At least one doesn’t want to wait for the first practice next summer. “I’m ready for next year already,” Ferch said.