Rebuild or repeat? In JFL, maybe both
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan – Things couldn’t have ended much better for Edgren football nation in 2006.
The Eagles finished 4-4, winning three of their last four games, their best mark in five years. And the Eagles also did something no other sports team in school history had ever done – win a Far East tournament banner as Class A champions, 23-0 over Osan American.
So what now? Garnering their first winning season since going 5-2 in 2001? Repeating as Class A champions? Dare the Eagles even think of scoring their first victory over eight-time Japan Football League champion Yokota since the 1999 season opener? Or even win the JFL outright?
Hold the phone, cautioned second-year coach Chris Waite. Though Edgren is enjoying rare lofty heights, there’s still plenty of work to do.
“There is a different feeling. Maybe a little more pressure,” Waite said. “That’s hard to deal with, especially for young athletes. And I’m still a young coach. We’ve not had to deal with that here.”
One thing working in Waite’s favor – the Eagles welcomed 56 players to practice and will have a junior varsity team for the first time in five years. That’s a far cry from the 30 who turned out two years ago.
Tacking up a Far East banner in the gym “certainly has generated interest within the community,” Waite said. “It’s fun to win. It carries a feel-good that nothing else quite does.”
Still, despite a veteran core of leaders and the presence of dangerous senior backs Zach Latimore (789 all-purpose yards, 9 touchdowns) and Jacques Moton, who’s back after a year in Nevada, Waiterefused to make predictions.
“I have one player back at his position on offense and one on defense. There are teams that have backs returning that rushed for over 1,000 yards," Waite noted.
To Waite, any year in DODDS “is a rebuilding year. To follow a championship is the hardest thing in the whole world. Everybody's motivated to beat the team that won a championship. We’re a target now.”
The Eagles opened the 2007 season on Friday by entertaining Kinnick, second in the JFL a season ago. Eight-time JFL champion Yokota hosted Zama American, last in the league the last two years.
As with Edgren, which lost 15 starters from last year, Yokota brings back just seven players from 2006. Beating Zama would give Yokota its Pacific-record 40th straight regular-season win.
But Panthers coach Tim Pujol prefers to gaze at Yokota’s 37-30 loss to Kadena in the Class AA semifinals. Not to mention Yokota needed to come back four times to win its seven regular-season games.
“These last two years have ended with semifinal losses,” Pujol said. “As far as I’m concerned, this team is coming off a loss, not going for a winning streak record.”
Yokota returns senior back Anthony McNeill (1,706 yards), but its interior line features just one player over 180 pounds – the smallest line Pujol has fielded in his nine seasons.
“We have an expectation and pressure to win. They seem to thrive on it,” Pujol said.
Another team staring at a rebuilding campaign is Kinnick. Gary Wilson, in his first full season as coach, must replace departed star back Larynzo Abernathy (1,662 yards, 18 touchdowns).
Injuries in practice and in scrimmages with Japanese teams have taken their toll also. “We’re very rebuilding,” Wilson said. “I hope we can be competitive at the start and get stronger at season’s end.”
In Steve Merrell, Zama American welcomes its 10th coach in 20 seasons and third in the last five. The Trojans have gone just 1-14 the past two years, and Merrell classifies 2007 as a “rebuilding” campaign, “but that doesn’t mean the expectations aren’t high.”
“We’re beginning a new era, a new chapter in Zama football,” Merrell said.