Tenth in a series of DODDS Pacific high school football team previews.

For Kadena football, to paraphrase Dickens regarding Far East Division I title games: It’s been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times.

Three times, the Panthers have won DODDS Pacific’s highest D-I football honor, by an average victory margin of 32.3 points.

But it wasn’t so much the three D-I title games the Panthers lost. It was how they lost them, in heart-shattering fashion:

¬¬-- A 12-6 overtime defeat in 2006 at Seoul American, which ended on a lost Kadena fumble at the 2-yard line.

¬¬-- A 22-21 loss two years later, again at Seoul American, when the Falcons Trin Stansel stopped Jordan Ray, a player 100 pounds heavier than he, on a two-point conversion to preserve the one-point lead.

-- Then there was last year’s heartbreaker, a 34-31 loss to Kubasaki, again in overtime.

All those years, “I respect the fact that we went all the way to the bitter end, but we have to learn to finish,” said longtime Kadena coach Sergio Mendoza, who has been at the helm for all six title-game appearances. “We’ve left three championships out there.”

With the components the Panthers have along with leadership in players such as senior running back Justin Sego, they might have what it takes reach title game No. 7.

With most teams, it starts with the linemen, and Kadena has a group that Mendoza says has a chance to “be really special,” averaging 250 pounds from tackle to tackle. “It’s the best line that we’ve had in years, the biggest in years,” he said.

Sego, naturally, remains the centerpiece of the team; he led the Panthers with 1,410 yards and 20 touchdowns on 177 attempts. And this season, there’s a second Sego on the roster – freshman Cody, who will be the team’s backup quarterback, Mendoza said.

Mendoza also hopes to get contributions from a couple of players coming over from other sports, such as senior tight end John McBain and sophomore receiver Justin Wilson, who each play baseball.

Maybe the only remaining question marks revolve around the linebacking corps, which took a hit when David Padilla and Gage Bongo graduated, along with edge pass rusher Preston Harris. The former two “may be the best I’ve ever coached,” Mendoza said.

He says he has four linebackers whom he trusts. “They have the physical ability,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see how well they play.”

Other than that, the Panthers boast strong balance at all other positions. And the players have “bought in” to the principles around which Mendoza says he tries to build in all his teams: commitment, accountability and love for each other.

“They’ve already bonded,” said Mendoza, adding that the players worked hard over the summer. “We’re building men, not just football players. They’ve bought into what we believe. And the teams that have done that in the past have won.”

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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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