Saturday’s showdown between the reigning Far East football division champions on the surface had been expected to be a battle between Kadena’s and host Zama American’s star running backs.

Zama’s Michael Spencer (437 yards, 4 touchdowns, 48 carries) remains in form, but Kadena’s tandem of Shariff Coleman (202, 3, 23) and Thomas McDonald (293, 3, 24) will likely be on the shelf. McDonald tweaked a knee, and Coleman was ejected in Saturday’s 22-6 win at Daegu American.

So, coaches Steven Merrell of Zama (2-1) and Sergio Mendoza of Kadena (2-0) are seeking ways to challenge their players to move beyond who’s playing and who’s not and focus on themselves as players and as a team.

“We have to be ready for whoever shows up,” said Merrell, whose Trojans held a powerful Yokota team scoreless in the first half en route to a 17-0 loss last Friday; Yokota rushed for a season-low 193 yards.

Merrell knows all too well about Kadena’s stars, but “I’m sure they’ll have other people step up and fill the roles adequately.”

Precisely what Mendoza says he has in mind as he prepares his second-line backs, including veterans Rodney Goodson and James Nollie, to step in for Coleman and McDonald.

“I’m looking at the opportunity that allows some of our other kids to step up and carry the load,” Mendoza said. “I’m looking for who’s going to be able to carry that fire.”

Saturday’s showdown is the first interarea battle between reigning Division I and II teams since DODDS Pacific’s Far East football playoffs began in 2005. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at Trojans Field.

Other key weekend games have Kubasaki trying to run its record against Korea teams to 2-0 when the Dragons visit Seoul American; kickoff is 2 p.m. On Guam, visiting Father Duenas Memorial tries to end Guam High’s rare run atop the Interscholastic Football League; kickoff is at 3 p.m.

Kadena historically hasn’t traveled well, losing in the Division I title game in 2006 and 2008 at Seoul American. Mendoza says it’s time for his Panthers to “rise to those challenges, traveling or not.”

“We wanted the best challenge for the kids, and that’s why we’re really excited to play Zama,” Mendoza said of a team that’s part of what he calls a “regular stateside-like schedule.”

“We know they’re well-coached, they’re sound, and their players are tough. I’m anxious to see who on this Kadena team can deal with adversity and shine through it and learn something about themselves and make themselves better men.”

Merrell is hoping his Trojans can build on holding down Yokota, at least for awhile, and take better advantage of its opportunities in future games, starting with Saturday.

“Certainly, it’s a positive that we played a close game with [Yokota] for awhile,” Merrell said. “I think we realized we were in the mix, but we should have been there in the end, and for some reason, we didn’t finish out. Now, we know what we have to do.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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