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Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils senior 180-pounder Tairiku Tejada (top) grapples with senior Cliff Johnson of Kadena during Saturday's Nile C. Kinnick Invitational at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Tejada won by pin in 4 minutes, 17 seconds, to capture the gold medal.
Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils senior 180-pounder Tairiku Tejada (top) grapples with senior Cliff Johnson of Kadena during Saturday's Nile C. Kinnick Invitational at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Tejada won by pin in 4 minutes, 17 seconds, to capture the gold medal. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — For three years, Tairiku Tejada struggled for respectability and watched his Nile C. Kinnick teammates enjoy Far East High School Wrestling Tournament glory.

“It’s my turn now,” Tejada, a senior, said after pinning Cliff Johnson in 4 minutes, 17 seconds to win the 180-pound weight class in Saturday’s Nile C. Kinnick Invitational, a major tuneup for Far East, slated for Feb. 11 to Feb. 13 at Yokota Air Base.

“I’ve been waiting all year long for this,” said Tejada, who has gone from a middling wrestler in past years to unbeaten this season.

He’d taken golds in three previous tournaments but hadn’t tested his mettle against interarea competition until Saturday.

“This was my breakthrough. I’m ready,” he said.

Tejada handed Johnson his first loss of the season. The Red Devils’ other gold medalists were Yamato Cibulka (135 pounds) and the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, Ken Cardwell (129). In addition, five silver medalists helped pace Kinnick to the tournament title with 74 points.

Shonan High, a Japanese school near Yokosuka, also grabbed three golds and finished second with 54 points. The two Department of Defense Dependents Schools entries from Okinawa, Kadena and Kubasaki, also sparkled, with the Panthers scoring 48 points and the Dragons three golds and 41 points.

Senior Matt O’Neill, also enjoyed a breakthrough in capturing gold for Kubasaki. Sidelined the first month of the season while recovering from a fractured ankle, he’s come on strong since his return.

“I was concerned about the ankle at first,” he said of the injury, suffered during football season. “At first, it hurt a little, but as I went on, I didn’t feel it. I just come out, wanting to win. I feel like I’m ready” for Far East.

With Far East less than two weeks away, teams used the tournament as a test to see where they stack up against their rivals. Zama American, Yokota and Kubasaki have a combined 22 Far East titles.

“We see who the players are,” Kubasaki second-year coach Terry Chumley said. “The more matches we have, the better.”

Absent were international powers American School In Japan and St. Mary’s International of Tokyo, with eight Far East titles to their credit. A flu epidemic prompted both schools to shut their doors and call off all sports activities this weekend.

“We’re disappointed that St. Mary’s and ASIJ aren’t here,” Kadena coach Steve Schrock said, noting that St. Mary’s, with two returning Far East weight-class champions, “has the toughest team they’ve had in years and ASIJ is always tough. We were really looking forward to them.”

First-year Kinnick coach Robby Rhinehart shared that disappointment, but said the Okinawa schools resemble St. Mary’s in many respects.

“I’m impressed with what I’ve seen out of them,” he said. “Their mental and physical toughness. They have good technique and they take advantage of mistakes. St. Mary’s doesn’t quit and these two teams don’t quit. Far East doesn’t get any easier.”

The presence of Japanese challengers from Shonan and Mutsukawa, another nearby school, made the hurdles higher, Rhinehart said. “I thought they’d be tough, and they are. When one of us beats them, it says we didn’t make any mistakes against them.”

Though Kinnick’s gold-medal haul pushed it well ahead of the pack Saturday, Rhinehart said the chase for Far East laurels is wide open.

“I think there are several top candidates,” he said. “Kadena and Kubasaki, from what I saw today. St. Mary’s and ASIJ, from what I’ve seen all season. And you never know what (defending individual freestyle team champion) Yokota is going to do. All those teams have a chance.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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