Depleted defending champs face challenges to repeat
Stars and Stripes November 17, 2023
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan – Following Far East tournament titles for Nile C. Kinnick’s girls and Yokota’s boys last February, the Red Devils and Panthers appear to be starting over.
Graduation and transfers hit both teams hard. Still, players and coaches of each team say they enter the 2023-24 season optimistic that they can remain competitive, once they each get used to each other and their new lineups.
“We’re expecting to start off strong,” said senior Kotone Turner, one of three returning varsity players for Kinnick’s girls, who won their fifth Division I title last season.
“Once we get the chemistry and strength going, after a few games, we’ll be good,” she said. “It’s a matter of getting a feel for each other.”
They begin that journey this weekend at Matthew C. Perry, where the Red Devils boys and girls take on the Samurai and a Japanese school from the Iwakuni area, Noda Gakuen.
Rather than a team whose offense ran through a couple of players plus a supporting cast, new coach David Weiland is hoping the Red Devils can be a team in which all five starters can score consistently.
“We’ll look for mismatches and openings,” Weiland said. “We’re very athletic; just not as experienced” as the D-I champions of a year ago.
The Panthers boys were also expecting to welcome a new coach, but Dan Galvin decided against retirement and has come back to lead Yokota.
“I’m never going to say ‘this is it’ again,” Galvin said. “One of these years, I just won’t be here.”
The Panthers, too, have just three players returning from their fifth Far East champion team, a guard-filled unit with plenty of quickness and not much height.
“It’ll look like every Panthers team we’ve had before. Just shoot it before you turn it over,” Galvin said.
Yokota begins its season this weekend at Robert D. Edgren.
Kinnick’s boys will also emphasize guard play, in returning seniors Xavier Wright and Vance Lewis, along with small forward Kennedy Hamilton. “We have quickness and good basic skills,” Red Devils coach Robert Stovall said.
Edgren’s boys had quite the turnout for tryouts, 28 players in all, which means the Eagles under new coach Marcus Thomas can fill out a junior varsity team, too. Edgren is young, with just one senior, Elijah Rodriguez.
Graduation removed a key element of E.J. King, outside shooter Cameron Reinhart. But coach Travis Elliott has the rest of his lineup returning along with a large freshman class, to include Nolan Grubb.
“Cam is a hard one to replace,” Elliott said, adding that two of his returners, Nolan FitzGerald and Jeremy Phillips, “have gotten better.”
Perry’s boys also return a vast portion of their starting lineup and welcome a North Carolina transfer, Daniel Rodriguez, to be their starting center. “We have a strong starting core; we just don’t have a lot of depth right now,” coach Daniel Burns said.
One team with a good mix of youth, experience, height and depth is Zama. Sophomores Ayden Helton and Rhino Aumua form a good inside-outside core. Senior Josh Norris transfers from Perry.
“We have way more seniors than we had last year,” coach Shawen Smith said. “We should be in the hunt for the championship as long as we stay healthy and work on fundamentals.”
Almost the entire lineup returns for the Trojans girls. Aumua’s big sister, senior Kierstyn, will ably man the middle along with junior Anna Olson. Zama is also loaded with experienced guards, in Lindsey So and Juliet Bitor.
Yokota is also steeped in experienced guards, to include juniors Erica Haas and Beverly Gardner. Freshman Coco Jones comes over from volleyball and is not new to basketball. Senior Hailey Riddels, a skilled soccer player, also returns to the Panthers lineup.
King, which relied heavily on guard play last season, welcomes volleyball star Mila Nishimura-Reed, a sophomore, to the lineup where she’ll play in the paint. Twin juniors Moa and Miu Best return to the backcourt along with senior Maliwan Schinker.
Joining Reed in the middle are sophomore Joanna Hall and senior Mikayla Honvo. “I have some younger ones that are tall. We’ll be strong inside,” Cobras coach McKinzy Best said.
Perry lost its top scorers from last season. The Samurai do bring back some experienced players, mostly in the backcourt. The lineup features some height and a little quickness, coach Joshua Henry said.
Due to lack of interested players, Edgren will not field a team this season, school officials said.
King, which welcomes former assistant coach Kevin McGrath to the head-coaching slot, could be competitive.
The Cobras’ travel team is filled with veterans, to include senior Joe McGrath, at 145 pounds. They’re deep in the middle weights and McGrath said King is excited about incoming junior Jesus Puello (215) and freshman Matthew Balitaan (127).
Maurice Cole takes the helm of the defending Division II champion Samurai, in rebuild mode having lost four key athletes. But with Xander Grantham, a 215-pound junior, returning along with two others plus some solid newcomers, the Samurai lineup “shows promise,” Cole said. “We definitely need to grow, but we have a lot of potential. I’m excited for this season.”
Kinnick is deep in athletes. Some 50 turned out for tryouts, along with 11 middle-schoolers.
The Red Devils have at least two athletes per weight class, a good core of returners and seven girls in the practice room. “We’ve got some depth,” second-year coach Stan Hovell said.
Zama struggled at the start of last season, but the Trojans have plenty of returners and a good crop of youngsters, coach Guy Snyder said. Joining the Trojans is freshman Gabe Simpkins, a 133-pounder and son of Trojans assistant coach Glen Simpkins.
The Eagles’ lineup is thin; only 13 wrestlers are out for coach Justin Edmonds, in his 18th season at the helm. Nikolas Hawkins, a junior, headlines the group at 145.
Yokota has mostly new wrestlers, including a large crop of underclassmen. Seniors Kai Patton (133-39) and Kaiyo Heinrichs (172) are the Panthers’ key returners.
Wrestling season begins this weekend with all DODEA-Japan teams converging on Yokota.