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TOKYO – The celebrating on the Mustang Valley rain-soaked field turf had barely quieted down Thursday when American School In Japan’s girls soccer players and coaches, fresh off capturing the league title, turned their attention toward next week’s Far East Division I Tournament.

ASIJ’s 1-0 win over Yokota clinched the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools title and Japan’s top seed in Far East, Monday-Thursday at Yokosuka Naval Base. But that league title came by the thinnest of margins, and ASIJ coach Nate Gildart says the league season is a reflection of what’s to come.

“Anything can happen,” said Gildart, whose Mustangs won Far East titles in 2008 and ’11. “Among the top four, it’s anybody’s game. Yokota, Kinnick, they’ll be tough, and (defending champion) Kubasaki’s definitely tough.”

Across the board, in all four tournaments, coaches are saying the same thing:

-- While reigning champion Christian Academy Japan remains the team to beat in Boys Division I, Kinnick, Seoul American and Kadena each hold the potential to knock off the Knights. They finished 1-2-3-4 in last year’s tournament and will do battle again Monday-Thursday at Kadena.

CAJ “is still quite competitive; they have a good program. He (coach Charles Smoker) has set up a good program,” Kinnick coach Robert Tiffany said, adding of a Kadena team his Red Devils faced in April: “Kadena is very competitive as well. They’ve got a solid program. They’re stronger than last year.”

-- Kubasaki’s girls were decimated by graduation and transfers after last year’s D-I championship season, but a Dragons group featuring just four returnees and sporting a youthful but skilled team captured the Okinawa season series and are taking aim at a D-I title defense.

“I definitely think it’s possible,” sophomore striker Marissa Mesquita said. “We had to come a long way at the start of the season, but they’ve worked so hard and put their hearts into it. Nobody expected us to win it last year. We were the little team that could.”

-- Reigning Division II boys champion Matthew C. Perry graduated three players who scored a total of 100 goals. That’s difficult to replace, said coach Mark Lange, whose Samurai defend the title on their home Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni turf against a field he termed “wide open.”

“I definitely don’t think there’s a clear favorite,” Lange said, adding that Zama American and three-time champion Yongsan International-Seoul “have to be considered” and even teams such as Osan American and newcomer Okinawa Christian School International “can’t be overlooked.” OCSI lost to Kadena 10-0 but rebounded to tie Kubasaki 3-3 in games vs. D-I foes.

“And M.C. Perry is M.C. Perry. It’s possible we can win, but … you never know what’s going to happen.”

-- Division II girls, to be played at Misawa Air Base, Japan, also features a field minus a clear favorite. Defending champion M.C. Perry must contend with an Osan team many thought was rebuilding but instead came in second in league. Tournament newcomer International School of the Sacred Heart enjoyed its best regular season as a Kanto program.

“It seems to be the same way with the girls,” Osan coach David Hamilton said. “We were pleasantly surprised with our performance” in last month’s Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference Five-Cities Division tournament, where they finished second. “That gave me hope we can do well at Far East.”

One thing all coaches must fight is roster reductions from 15 to 14 players, mandated in December by DODDS Pacific.

“You have to guard against injury and use your subs wisely,” Lange said. “It’s all about who can bring the best soccer next week.”

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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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