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It was already going to be a very good Kadena boys basketball team, with six players returning from a team that went 31-14 and finished sixth in Class AA last season. But the inside presence of senior Jeremy Howell, with ball, and junior Jason Sumpter makes the team even stronger, coach Robert Bliss said. The Panthers are 9-0 and won the Hong Kong International tournament title last week.

It was already going to be a very good Kadena boys basketball team, with six players returning from a team that went 31-14 and finished sixth in Class AA last season. But the inside presence of senior Jeremy Howell, with ball, and junior Jason Sumpter makes the team even stronger, coach Robert Bliss said. The Panthers are 9-0 and won the Hong Kong International tournament title last week. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — If the two had been mailed to Okinawa in a postal package, the note from Brussels American School to Kadena coach Robert Bliss might have read:

“Dear Kadena Basketball: Accept with our compliments these two post players, senior Jeremy Howell and junior Jason Sumpter. They’re strong; their games are balanced; they work hard; and they’re coachable. For instant success, just add a point guard. Yours in hoops, Brigands Basketball.”

“What a great gift,” Bliss’ former assistant and now Kadena girls coach DeWayne Pigge’ said. “I went and told Bob: ‘You’ve got the total package now.’ He was all smiles.”

The two had played JV ball for Kadena two seasons ago before moving to Belgium to live with their father, John, a retired Army master sergeant working at the U.S. Army Garrison there. But they came back this summer to be with their mother, Sherri, who works at Torii Station.

“It was a surprise. I had no idea they were planning to return,” Bliss said. “They’ve sure been a help to us this year, especially when they’re both on. … It makes for a great situation.”

So far, they have made a big difference. Sumpter has averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds and Howell 11 and seven for the Panthers, 9-0 and champions of last week’s 40th Hong Kong International School Holiday Tournament.

The Panthers already looked good on paper, returning six players from a team that went 31-14 last season and placed sixth in last year’s Far East Class AA Tournament.

But add the 6-foot-4 Sumpter and the 6-3 Howell to a lineup that includes Hong Kong MVP guard Taiyo Robertson, All-Class AA forward Kevin Paranal and three-point specialist L.J. Hubbard, and it equals a well-balanced attack, Bliss said.

“What was missing last year and what it seems every powerhouse team has is a strong finishing presence, a strong big man,” Bliss said.

He noted that 2008 Class AA champion Seoul American boasted 6-4 senior Joe McLean. Bliss’ 2005 Class AA title team featured 6-5 leaper Z’aire Jackson. And St. Mary’s International’s Class AA champion of 2009 got huge contributions from then-junior Amritpal Warraich.

“Any good team I’ve seen has always had a strong inside presence. I think it makes a big difference,” Bliss said. “(Paranal) does a great job, but he’s only 5-11. It’s a bonus to have some height.”

Bliss noted that the brothers’ games have taken huge leaps forward; they were each all-region selections in Europe and helped the Brigands to third place in the Division IV tournament.

Bliss says he’s “very impressed” with Sumpter’s defense and shot-blocking, as well as getting position and finishing on offense. While Howell is more physical, “he likes to play a lot on the perimeter. They’re pretty similar players, but there are differences.”

The brothers say playing against smaller Japanese players this season and the bigger, more physical European players last year have given each a more “well-rounded game.”

At Brussels, Sumpter played guard and small forward, “so I know what guards look for when they’re looking to the inside game. In my JV season, I played post, so I also knew what I had to do on the inside. There are a variety of people I’ve guarded.”

“I can guard big men or little guards,” Howell said. “I do off-the-ball picks on offense to get other players open. I try to space out and move around, not stay in one spot so it gets crowded.”

Are the two happy they returned to Okinawa?

“I was looking forward to the competition,” Howell said, “playing for a team I can bond with and win a championship.”

“In Belgium, they were stronger players, bigger players,” Sumpter said. “Here, it’s a lot faster game, more teams, more games we get to play during the season. And I think we have better teammates to make us work harder here.”

So far, that hard work has led to an average victory margin of 23.6 points; only once has Kadena won a game by less than 10 points, beating Hong Kong 79-76 in a pool-play game. And other schools have taken notice of Kadena’s play, especially the brothers.

“Put those two pieces in there, that expands their offensive firepower,” said coach Kevin Baker of Seoul Foreign, which lost 89-68 to Kadena. “The dimension they bring is impressive. They present that dual threat along with what they have outside. I was impressed with how well they played away from the ball. And when Kadena subbed, they didn’t drop off as a team. Good balance, speed and quickness.”

All that has Bliss smiling aplenty.

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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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