Raiders' long hiatus over as USFJ-AFL's season kicks off
Each of the past 310 days, Chuck Wichert has had one goal in mind — putting the Yokota Raiders back on the football field.
The squad’s second-year head coach will do just that Saturday when Yokota travels to Atsugi for the 2003 U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League season opener.
Last July 25, with his team 0-4 and the roster devastated by deployments and the closure of Yokota Air Base’s runway, Wichert withdrew the Raiders from the league.
“It hurt badly, having to cancel the rest of the season,” Wichert said.
It was the final step in a hard fall Yokota took from league runner-up in 2000. The Raiders went 1-13 in the USFJ-AFL the next two seasons, including four forfeits to close the 2002 campaign.
With three-quarters of his players either in the Persian Gulf or at Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base, only five or six practiced. Player and team safety became an issue.
“But that was the day I started building toward this season,” he said.
Wichert says he recruited virtually nonstop, secured $5,000 for equipment and gained permission to play at the high school’s Bonk Field — giving Yokota service football night home games for the first time.
The roster is again robust with 53 players, and Wichert hopes the influx of talent will put Yokota back on a winning path.
Yokota’s return isn’t the only thing different about the USFJ- AFL this season.
• Two teams debut this season: the Futenma Falcons and Courtney-Hansen Titans of Okinawa. The Titans host Misawa and the Falcons travel to Yokosuka for their openers on June 14.
• The Okinawa Giants are now the Kadena Dragons and will be composed primarily of airmen from Kadena Air Base, coach Glen Ballard said. Putting together travel and logistical arrangements for players from just one service “will make things easier for us,” he said.
• After three years as commissioner, Tim Buck, a civilian attorney at Atsugi, resigned because he is transferring. He was replaced by former Yokota coach and player Joe Howell.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the spate of postponements and cancellations that have plagued the league since 2000.
The season was to supposed to start May 24, with Kadena visiting three-time defending champion Yokosuka, but that was called off because of duty commitments.
A rematch of the 2002 championship game pitting Yokosuka at Misawa on Saturday also was postponed by transportation problems. The Seahawks won the title with a 16-6 victory at Yokosuka Naval Base last September.
Neither game has been rescheduled. Thirty games have been canceled, postponed or forfeited because of duty, weather or transportation problems since the start of the 2000 season.