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Steve Schrock has reason to feel optimistic.

Just one example: The wrestlers trying to squeeze into a small space carpeted with mats and surrounded by tables in Kadena High School’s cafeteria, where the Panthers practice.

“We’ve never had this many out before,” the Panthers coach said. “I’m trying to find room for all of them.”

Schrock has 35 wrestlers — including five girls — about twice what the coach has averaged in his five previous seasons.

As an added bonus, they’re in great condition. Schrock credited their participation in fall sports for keeping them in shape.

“These guys are ready,” he said. “Most of them ran cross country if they didn’t play football in order to condition for wrestling.” Cross-country coach Tom McKinney “ran them hard and it really shows how much better condition we are this year” than at the beginning of last year.

Led by three wrestlers who medaled in previous Far East tournaments, Schrock hopes Kadena can capture its first Far East team title.

But his goal extends even further. With just two seniors in his projected lineup — 180-pounder Cliff Johnson and 135-pounder Antoine Smith — Schrock said, “I’m hoping we can get Kadena closer to the upper echelon of wrestling schools” such as Kadena’s Okinawa rival Kubasaki, which holds a record 18 Far East titles.

“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Schrock said, but “this year’s group is the most dedicated, committed and self-motivated group I’ve seen at Kadena” since he began coaching in 1996.

Schrock feels his lineup is solid at the upper weights: Johnson and junior Devon Copeland are entrenched at 180 and 168 and junior Cole Maxey is returning at 215 after missing last season with a broken hand.

Junior Brenden Stanford, who missed last year’s Far East tournament because of illness, moves up to 129. Maxey’s sophomore brother Chris fills the 122 slot; sophomore Chris Isley takes the 115 berth. Still up for grabs are the 101 and 108 slots.

“That will be the challenge, for us to fill the lighter weight classes, teach them and get them ready” for five dual meets with Kubasaki, then Far East, Schrock said.

Awaiting them in the Far East tournament, scheduled for Feb. 11-13 at Yokota Air Base, Japan, will be:

• Kubasaki, short on veterans but long on freshmen, whom coach Terry Chumley feels can make the Dragons strong in future seasons.

• ASIJ, owner of four Far East championships. Coach John Hohenthaner boasts a handful of veterans, including defending 148-pound champion David Zielinski, who could challenge for overall supremacy.

• St. Mary’s International of Tokyo. Also four-time Far East team champions, the Titans welcome back 108-pound champion Mark Striegl, among other contenders.

• Host Yokota, which ended a 25-year Far East tournament title drought, faces a stern rebuilding task but senior middleweight Dustin Haney looms as a title threat.

• Seoul American, which has a handful of competitors but hardly anyone to wrestle in Korea. Taegu American won’t field a team this year, and Osan American, with new coach Charles Tadlock, does not have a full team but has title threats Charles Gasaway (115) and Aaron Clifton (180).

Okinawa

Kadena Panthers

Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

Coach: Steve Schrock, sixth year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: Tied for ninth in individual freestyle, lost in third round of dual-meet consolation bracket.

Key returnees: Cliff Johnson, senior (third at 180 at Far East; 180 this year); Devon Copeland, junior (fifth at 158 at Far East; 158-68 this year); Billy Phister, junior (141); Brenden Stanford, junior (2002 101-pound champion; missed last Far East because of illness; 129 this year); Cole Maxey, junior (heavyweight; missed last season with broken hand); Chris Maxey, sophomore (122); Chris Isley, sophomore (115).

Outlook: This finally could be the year for Kadena, which is loaded, particularly at the upper weights, and has just two seniors on the roster. Slumped last year after coming within an eyelash of a 2002 championship but Schrock’s team appears set for a title run this season and next.

Kubasaki Dragons

Camp Foster, Okinawa

Coach: Terry Chumley, third season.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: Third in individual freestyle, sixth in dual-meet.

Key returnees: Christian Segarra, sophomore (sixth at 101 at Far East; 108 this year); Tony Gorry, sophomore (third at 122 at Far East; 129 this year); Matt O’Neill, senior (sixth at 148 at Far East; 158 this year); Kyle Leab, senior (158 last year; 168 this year); Paul Haecherl, sophomore (third at heavyweight at Far East; heavyweight this year).

Outlook: Most decorated team in Far East tournament history, with 18 team titles, may be a bit thin in experience, but with 14 freshmen on the team, Chumley is hopeful the Dragons can return to prominence in the next year or so.

Japan

Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils

Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan

Coach: Robby Rhinehart, first year.

2002-03 Far East tournament team results: Second in individual freestyle, fourth in dual-meet.

Key returnees: Yamato Cibulka, sophomore (fourth at 122 in Far East last season; 129-35 this season); Kenji Doughty, sophomore (135 last season; 141-48 this season; Tairiku Tejada (third at 168 at Far East; 168-80 this season).

Key newcomer: Joey Wood, junior (141-48-58 this season).

Outlook: First season since 1997 without Scott Smith at the helm. New coach also had to rebuild team that lost senior leaders Jason Bailey, Go Yamada and Joel Smith; senior Richie Korth also will not return. Still, Rhinehart feels his team “will do well” in the Far East tournament.

Yokota Panthers

Yokota Air Base, Japan

Coach: Mark Hanssen, sixth season.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: Individual freestyle team champion, fifth in dual-meet.

Key returnees: Dustin Haney, senior (second at 129 at Far East; 135-41 this year); Pil-chung Yun (115-22 last year; 122-29 this year).

Outlook: Rebuilding year. The bulk of the Panthers’ first championship team in 25 years has graduated or transferred, giving Hanssen his biggest building challenge since coming aboard in 1998. Haney and Yun emerge as the team’s senior leaders. Still, he says he is pleased with the “eagerness, athleticism and enthusiasm” of his core group.

Zama American Trojans

Camp Zama, Japan

Coach: Ian Harlow, second year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: 11th in individual freestyle; lost in first round of dual-meet consolation bracket.

Key returnees: Anthony Garcia, senior (115 last year; 122 this year); David Burnett, sophomore (fifth at heavyweight at Far East; heavyweight this year).

Outlook: The Trojans have the same head coach for a second straight season; the coaching post has resembled a revolving door for most of the past decade. Harlow’s numbers again are thin but Burnett looms as the Trojans’ best hope for a freestyle gold medalist since the 1980s.

E.J. King Cobras

Sasebo Naval Base, Japan

Coach: Thomas Heitstuman, first year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: 14th in individual freestyle; lost in second round of dual-meet consolation bracket.

Key returnees: Scott Macri, junior (115 last year; 122 this year); Andre Best, senior (168 last year; 168 this year); Brandon Gilbert, junior (135); Matt Pullen, junior (141); Richard Hernandez, senior (135); Chris Buster, sophomore (122).

Key newcomer: Mari Tumbado, senior (115).

Outlook: Rebuilding time. Heitstuman steps in in place of longtime Cobras mentor Hiroshi Kato, who has retired. Ranks of experienced wrestlers are thin. Heitstuman is high on a number of freshmen “who will bear watching in the coming years.”

Robert D. Edgren Eagles

Misawa Air Base, Japan

Coach: Chad Dunham, first year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: 15th in individual freestyle, did not wrestle dual-meet.

Key returnees: Louie Lee, junior (fifth at 101 at Far East; 115 this year); Vincent Doinoff, sophomore (129); Victor Lee, freshman (135), Sam Godwin, sophomore (148); Egan Dales, sophomore (168).

Key newcomers: Kiko Bratcher, freshman (heavyweight); Warren Bratten, sophomore (heavyweight); Neils Johnson, freshman (180); Justin Dickman, freshman (158); Corey Stamps, freshman (158); Don Smith, freshman (168.

Outlook: Upperclassmen ranks are thin, with Louie Lee looming as the team’s best immediate hope, but youth will serve this team well in the coming years. The coaching staff is in place for a while, and a gaggle of freshman and sophomores with potential dot the roster.

Korea

Seoul American Falcons

Yongsan Garrison, South Korea

Coach: Julian Harden, ninth year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: Eighth in individual freestyle, lost in first round of dual-meet consolation bracket.

Key returnees: John Crabtree, junior (141; missed last season due to injury); Herald Oertwig, senior (148 last year; 158 this year); Alex Kim, junior (sixth at 115 at Far East; 129 this year); Scott Tunis, junior (180).

Key newcomers: Brandon Church, senior (168); Josh Dowers, junior (135).

Outlook: Lack of in-league competition will be more pronounced this year, since Taegu American will not field a team and Osan American lacks a full team. Harden plans to look at traveling to in-season tournaments out of Korea to give his team work before Far East.

Osan American Cougars

Osan Air Base, South Korea

Coach: Charles Tadlock, first year.

2002-03 Far East tournament results: Tied for 12th in individual freestyle; did not wrestle in dual-meet.

Key returnees: Charles Gasaway, senior (third at 108 at Far East; 115 this year); Aaron Clifton, junior (fifth at 180 at Far East; 180 this year).

Key newcomer: Mathew McRee, freshman.

Outlook: Again, the Cougars have a thin team but two decent Far East tournament placement hopes in Gasaway and Clifton. Tadlock hopes his team, which is rebuilding but learning, can be “combative."

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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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