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Three big plays burn brightly in the memory of Rydell Wilkins, whose Seoul American Falcons still rue the one that got away on Sept. 16 when they visited Kubasaki in an inter-area regular-season football game:

- A 94-yard kick-return touchdown by sophomore Jarrett Mitchell in what proved to be his breakout game for the Dragons.

- Jace Johnson returning a blocked punt 38 yards for a score.

- Johnson recovering a loose ball and rambling 60 yards for another TD.

“Those three mistakes were very costly,” Wilkins said, recalling that 41-17 defeat at Kubasaki’s Mike Petty Stadium.

Take away those three plays, he and Kubasaki coach Fred Bales said, and it’s a much closer game, the one they’re expecting Saturday when the two sides tee it up in the first of two Far East Division I semifinals. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. at Mike Petty.

“Eliminate mistakes, absolutely,” Wilkins said. “We have to play a complete game with the right mindset, just play hard football. They’re (Dragons) a formidable opponent. It’s going to be an awesome game.”

The first go-round was “much more competitive than the final score indicated,” Bales said.

Each team gets much of its offensive fuel from running backs, Ty White of Seoul American (733 yards, 6 touchdowns, 108 carries) and Mitchell (744, 5, 66). Neither had come into their own until that first encounter, and their games have developed since, both coaches said.

“The emergence of both running backs, running very hard, that will make a difference” in each team’s play, Wilkins said.

Bales refers to his opponent as a “dangerous team. They’re good athletes, they’re well coached, they have a great back, a sturdy line. I’m sure they’re much improved since the last time we saw them. We feel like we’ve improved, too. It should be great playoff football.”

Among the four teams in the D-I semifinals, Yokota is the only one without a D-I title. It’s an ironic twist, if one reflects back to the Panthers’ days in the early 2000s of winning Rising Sun Bowls against Okinawa split squads every year.

At 7 p.m. Saturday, Yokota hosts a Kadena team that’s beaten Yokota in three D-I title games and one semifinal. Seoul American beat Yokota in two other semis.

“We’ve been overpowered by superior teams,” said coach Tim Pujol, who has 12 DODDS Japan and Kanto Plain and five Rising Sun Bowls to his credit. “We haven’t gotten it done. We’ve come up short.”

Despite Yokota having its biggest line in a decade, “there are no guarantees about this year,” Pujol said.

“On paper it looks good for us. We’re facing a young team, they’ve had a four-week layoff, but they’re the two-time defending champions,” Pujol said. “We want to pay our debt. We’re going to give them everything they can handle.”

While Seoul American romped at Nile C. Kinnick in the Oct. 3 play-in game at Yokosuka Naval Base, Kadena held high-powered Guam High without a point but only managed two field goals in its 6-0 play-in win.

“There’s always the possibility of a loss when we play Yokota,” coach Sergio Mendoza said, despite Kadena outscoring Yokota 140-29 the last three times they’ve met. “We’re certainly not putting up the numbers we have in the past. I’m expecting for us to begin peaking as a football team after the growing pains we’ve had to go through. We have to be faster and more aggressive than in the past.”

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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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