Senior Emaleigh Appleton has started behind the plate for Kadena in their run of two straight Far East Division I Tournament titles and 26-3-1 two-season run.

Senior Emaleigh Appleton has started behind the plate for Kadena in their run of two straight Far East Division I Tournament titles and 26-3-1 two-season run. (Addison Leising/Special to Stripes)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – If DODEA high school sports teams cycle through players and coaches on a 33- to 50-percent annual basis, Kadena’s softball team might stand as a poster-child example.

The Panthers have won the last two Far East Division I Tournament titles, and the DODEA All-Japan tournament in 2022, despite going through a new coach every season.

And the 2024 version of the Panthers had to begin the season with their top two batters in the 2023 lineup sidelined by injury.

One thing pretty much remained constant, though. That was behind the plate. Emaleigh Appleton has been the Panthers’ catcher the last two years, and in so doing, one of the team’s leaders on and off the field.

“All eyes are on you,” Appleton said. “What you do impacts the entire team. My energy determines everybody else’s. If I make a bad play, I have to shake it off and get on with the next one. Not just tell people what to do, but to encourage the team.”

And the Panthers have more than responded the past couple of seasons, despite so many personnel changes.

They went 15-2 in the 2023 season and 11-1-1 in the just completed season. Two of those losses came against Japanese teams and only one to an American team, Kubasaki, on April 18, 2023.

During that span, Appleton has batted .567 with 41 RBIs and 22 stolen bases, batting mostly in the middle of the order. And the D-I Far East title games saw the Panthers beat the Dragons twice, 17-7 on April 26, 2023 and 10-5 on May 2, 2024.

For all that, Appleton has been named Stars and Stripes Pacific softball Athlete of the Year.

It wasn’t easy doing all that, Appleton said. They entered the season with the reigning D-I Best Pitcher and MVP, twin juniors Julia and Jessica Petruff, sidelined by injury; Julie did pitch four games.

An 11-3 early-season loss to Gushikawa, a Japanese team, helped the Panthers determine who needed to be playing where, Appleton said.

“Eventually, we found that lineup that worked,” she said. “We found our strengths. We learned from it, we figured out what was right and it helped us be undefeated the rest of the season.”

The Panthers didn’t let the injuries to the Petruffs faze them. “We just put in our next pitcher (Nao Grove) and worked hard to make up for the absences,” Appleton said. “We didn’t think too much about it.”

Adjusting to new coaching philosophies took some work. “It was a learning experience, how to take different teachings and make them both work,” Appleton said.

A road trip to Korea, where the Panthers beat Osan 19-1, helped the Panthers to bond. One reason Appleton says she will miss playing for Kadena.

“We were with each other through everything, nerves, highs, lows, friendships and personalities,” Appleton said. “Take all that and the skills sets and we found what was best for us.”


Age — 17.

Place of birth — Bolivar, Mo.

Sports played besides softball — Cross country.

Favorite school subject — Human anatomy.

Least favorite school subject — History.

Athlete she looks up to — Jennie Finch.

Favorite artist — Luke Bryan.

Favorite TV series — NCIS Los Angeles.

Favorite movie — Encanto.

Individual batting statistics — .650 batting average, .780 on-base percentage, 1.665 OPS, 15 RBIs, 14 stolen bases.

Team record — 11 wins, 1 loss, 1 tie; second straight DODEA-Pacific Far East Division I Tournament title (Pacific-best seventh overall).

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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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