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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Over the years, Tom McKinney has refined the art of getting athletes in one sport to believe they can be successful in another.

When he was coaching Kadena boys soccer, he convinced wrestler Brandon McCullough that he was a soccer goalkeeper and basketball star Jamil Barney that he could play right fullback.

So after losing most of his girls lineup to graduation and transfers last spring from his defending Far East champion cross-country team, he reached out to the soccer ranks for help.

He took junior midfielder Anna Armel and put her in the lineup. Freshmen Wren Renquist and Natalie Fontenot have proven to be competitive runners in the early going. As a bonus, sophomore midfielder Kai Heckerman joined the team and now boosts the boys lineup.

As a result, McKinney has much reason to smile these days.

Not only is he coaching a reigning Far East high school cross-country meet Division I champion team, he brings back both runners who captured gold in that meet last November, seniors Andrew Kilkenny and Ana Hernandez, plus a talented roster that should keep the Panthers competitive now and later.

A tireless recruiter, McKinney also looks at those who tried out for other sports but didn’t make the cut, leads them to the corner of the gym and tells them: “See these banners? I can make you a champion.”

“If you don’t sell your program, the kids won’t come,” McKinney said. “You develop for the future. Who’s here now and who’s coming later.”

As a result, he says his program is “always competitive,” but he’s not already counting any titles yet.

“It’s within reach, but I don’t want to count championships before they’re here,” he said. “My goal is to get them ready. How they win is up to them when they get there.”

“There” is Nov. 4-5 at Camp Fuji and Naval Air Facility Atsugi, site of the Far East meet.

Kilkenny will likely get his strongest competition within DODDS from Daniel Galvin of Yokota, who’s already posted a time of 16 minutes, 54 seconds in the Yokota Invitational. Nile C. Kinnick twins Aaron and Ethan Russ should be in the mix. On the girls side, Kinnick’s Cary Fontanez and Yokota’s Christine Madamba and Sam Arnold should give Hernandez a challenge, among others.

Division II championships should be open battles, with Zama American sophomores Jarrell Hibler and Lisa Steiner, E.J. King senior Daichi Bellwood and Matthew C. Perry’s Greg Graham in the mix.

ornauer.dave@stripes.com

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