Panthers happy for hard lessons
January 22, 2009
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Kenneth Carroll could only sit in admiration, watching Kadena High School sophomore shooting specialist Taiyo Robertson attack from the perimeter and junior forward Kevin Paranal bang away inside against Carroll’s Okinawa’s Bomb Squad.
Kadena led the eventual MLK tournament champion most of the way before losing 81-76 in Saturday’s opening round of the tournament’s double-elimination playoffs.
But Kadena earned respect from Carroll and many other military ballplayers in a tournament designed for interservice teams.
"They aren’t scared," said Carroll, who played for Strictly Business, which lost to Kadena 51-49 in overtime in a pool-play game.
"People come in, see a high school team and think they can blow them out. But they work the ball well, talk to each other and have a poise about themselves."
MLK historically has provided a different physical education for the Panthers, who since 1995 have been welcomed to the Marine Corps Community Services-sponsored event.
They get banged around by the bigger, more physical military players, a process that Kadena players and coaches say helps them prepare for higher competition. Along the way, both boys and girls teams qualified for the playoffs, the boys for the fourth time, and went a combined 4-9.
Longtime MCCS Semper Fit programs director Steve Rowland, one of MLK’s founding fathers, has said: "They come here to get good, solid, game-time preparation for their Far East tournaments."
Together with this weekend’s Okinawa-American Shootout, also at Foster Field House, where Kadena will face speedy Japanese foes, the Panthers get the "best of both worlds," senior guard Brandon Harris said.
"Toughness and stamina," Harris said of areas in which Kadena improves thanks to the two events. "It helps us a lot with conditioning and toughness. It gives us a leg up on the competition."
"It’s a great opportunity to play guys who play a lot of basketball," said Kadena coach Robert Bliss, in his third MLK tournament. "Any time you’re in a tournament, it gets you used to playing a lot of games. It helps your conditioning and mental concentration you have to sustain."
For starters, adult opposition automatically forces a high school team to raise its level. "You have to bring up the intensity against adults who are twice your size," Kadena junior forward Aja’ Walker said.
"They don’t really care how young you are," Harris said.
Military coaches and players say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
If the adult teams didn’t go all out against Kadena, "it wouldn’t be fair to them," All-Armed Forces guard Ryan McLellan said.
"You treat them just like any team," Torii Station coach Angel Acevedo said. "They’re here for a reason. [Tournament organizers] feel they’re here to compete."
Still, several interservice players took the time to give tips to their prep counterparts. After the closing ceremony, Bomb Squad’s two-time All-Armed Forces guard, Billy Shanks, showed Robertson different moves with the ball.
"They’re very supportive of us. They’ve always kind of taken us under their wing," Bliss said.
Playing against more physical people could be viewed as unneeded danger, but Kadena’s players said it didn’t concern them much.
"Part of basketball. You don’t really worry about it," Harris said.
"When the adrenaline is going, you really don’t notice it in the game and that’s part of it, getting physical," Walker said.
"The referees control the action and the adults stay in control pretty well," Bliss said.
It’s the sort of risk that Kubasaki’s teams decided for the second year not to take, opting instead to get their tournament experience in the Okinawa-American Shootout, Kubasaki athletics director Fred Bales said.
"It does come down to the physical side of the game," Bales said. "With the shootout, five or six games next weekend, then it becomes a thought process of how much you want to put your team through" in two weekends.
Whether playing the MLK, the Shootout or both, a team can only get better with more gamest, Bliss said.
"These two tournaments really provide us with a lot of preparation," he said.