Showdowns will likely determine at least half of finalists
By DAVE ORNAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 28, 2017
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Call it a weekend of de facto semifinals in DODEA-Pacific high school football: Matthew C. Perry visits Yokota at 6 p.m. Friday, while Nile C. Kinnick hosts Kadena at 2 p.m. Saturday.
It’s the only time these teams meet each other in the regular season. And each team in each game controls its own destiny where the Divisions I and II finals, slated for the weekend of Oct. 27-28, are concerned:
-- Whichever team wins Saturday could end up hosting the D-I final. The visiting Panthers, with a DODEA-Pacific-record five D-I titles to their credit and last year’s runners-up, are trying for a record 10th D-I final berth. The host Red Devils have yet to qualify for even one.
-- Perry, the reigning D-II champion, is trying for its third appearance in the small-schools final; the Samurai won the title 44-6 at home last Nov. 5 over Humphreys. The Panthers are trying to reach their second final in three years; they lost the 2015 final at Daegu.
“We’re treating this like a playoff game, which it is,” said Tim Pujol, in his 19th season as Yokota coach. The Panthers do possess championship cachet, having won the Division I title in 2011 and 2012.
While the Red Devils and Panthers have each gone a perfect 4-0 thus far this season, players on each team are keeping their focus only on the task at hand.
“All business,” Kinnick coach Dan Joley said. “The kids understand the importance of the game. We’re both in the same boat: We control our destiny and that’s a good thing. The community’s excited. The kids are excited. But they don’t show it.”
The D-I showdown could be a showcase of offensive diversity. Quarterbacks Kacey Walker of Kinnick and Kadena’s Cody Sego are equally adept running and passing the ball.
Fullbacks Harry Cheng of Kinnick and Kadena’s Uriah Morris can run with power and quickness. Red Devils senior transfer Aaron Peterson has outside speed; Panthers’ newcomer Eric McCarter has been called “blindingly explosive” by one opposing coach.
“We have to focus on the things we have to do better,” Panthers coach Sergio Mendoza said. “We still have so many things to work on. We’re doing a lot of work on things that need to be improved than we’re doing right. They’re (Kinnick) a really good team.”
At Yokota, both Pujol and Samurai coach Frank Macias say their teams are bracing for a physical, ground-oriented game. Perry beat Yokota at home 52-19 last Oct. 22, a game that determined D-II final host rights.
“It has to be a complete turnaround,” Pujol said. “Last year, we were beaten early and often. This year, we want to play four quarters of football and see who’s standing at the end. It’s a prize fight. … If we lose, I can’t envision us being the Japan D-II representative.”
While the Samurai led the region in scoring offense a year ago, they’ve allowed just one touchdown to a D-II opponent, outscoring small-school foes 98-8. Macias credits that to the play of his defense.
“Our kids are physical defensively,” Macias said. During practice, the Samurai offense has had trouble running plays “because they’ve (defense) been blowing us up. But it’s making us better. It’s different from last year. Our defense is so much better. They’re carrying us.”
The key matchup could end up being Yokota’s speedy backs, seniors Kishaun Kimble-Brooks and Marquis Smith-Brown, against a Samurai defense spearheaded by senior Mason Graydon, who leads the team in tackles, sacks and tackles for losses.
“They’re going to have to stop what we do well,” Macias said.
“Whoever winds it is going to have to earn it,” Pujol said.