Who can stop the Okinawa Express?

That’s the question virtually every other team entered in next week’s Far East Tournament is wrestling with: how to throw a boulder in front of consensus Division I favorites Kubasaki and Kadena.

“I think we’re going to dominate Far East this year,” Kubasaki assistant coach Justin Cook said.

Kadena swept the four Okinawa dual meets and won the Rumble on the Rock earlier this month at Kubasaki; the Dragons finished second and won the Kininick Invitaitonal “Beast of the Far East” in January.

Cook points to the groundwork he and head coach Ron Geist have done over three years, plus getting transfers Aaron Stravers (180 pounds) from Kinnick and Daniel Mora (108) from California.

“That helped the program immensely,” Cook said.

Reigning Far East champions Steven Walter (115) and Fred Suniga (215) also dot the lineup.

Under new coach Justin Armstrong, Kadena’s program has also made great strides, featuring reigning Far East champion Justin Duenas (108) and former Alaska state champion Alex Rojas (141).

“I’m happy to see them thriving this year,” Cook said. “Them being so good made us good and that’s what made Okinawa so strong.”

So, what, if anything, can slow down the Dragons and Panthers?

“It takes a bit of luck with seeding,” said coach Gary Wilson of Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools champion Kinnick, which won all 10 regular-season dual meets, Saturday’s league finals and came in third at “Beast.”

“Having more teams there helps the underdogs a little and helps keep the top teams from staying on top,” he said. “You have to hope that certain guys get knocked out along the way; maybe that will change the complexion a little.”

Far East will feature wrestlers from Korea, such as Seoul American 215-pounder Joe Durham, and Guam’s 215-pounder Ian Hansen, who can present matchup problems for the favorites at each weight, Wilson said.

Yokota coach Brian Kitts pronounced Kadena a runaway favorite to win Far East while at “Beast,” but seems to have had a change of heart since then.

“Kinnick has been getting better and better,” Kitts said. “Kinnick is in the hunt. They have huge numbers and they’re doing really well.”

While Kadena, Kubasaki and Kinnick seem to be the top D-I dogs, the consensus at Division II was that Zama American, champion two years ago, will return to that status behind last year’s Far East Outstanding Wrestler Chad Wilder (158).

The Trojans have the numbers, coaches say, a far more complete lineup than E.J. King, M.C. Perry, Edgren, Daegu and Osan American, which automatically makes Zama the favorite, at least in the dual-meet phase.

Far East is a day shorter than the past few years, cut from four days to three, Tuesday-Thursday, due to “budget realities,” DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff said. Pool-play bouts will be wrestled the first day, elimination bouts the second, and the dual meet the third day, organizer Tom Bell said.

Kitts expressed concern that injuries might increase in a shorter tournament, when athletes are wrestling more bouts each day.

“We added a fourth day and injuries dropped dramatically,” he said. “Now, it’s three days. We’ll see what happens.”

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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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