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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Two-time defending champion 3rd Force Service Support Group begins its quest for a three-peat Monday in a Marine Forces Pacific Regional Softball Tournament that’s become startlingly small.

Last year, seven teams battled for the title over five days. Due to duty commitments and a reshuffling of the Marine Corps regional tournament field, the number of teams has shrunk to four, all on Okinawa, and the tournament will last three days.

One subtraction was coming anyway: Marine Corps Base Hawaii now falls under the West Coast region’s umbrella. But Iwakuni Air Station of Japan isn’t coming because of military commitments and U.S. Naval Hospital Camp Lester of Okinawa bowed out due to “unforeseen circumstances,” officials said.

“I can’t believe we only have four teams,” said J.T. Turner, who takes the helm of 3rd Force this year. “That’s ridiculous.”

Does this year’s truncated field signal a continuing downturn for Marine Corps Community Services Semper Fit Athletics? It has already canceled major Pacificwide open tournaments on Okinawa in basketball and softball.

“I don’t think so,” said Sonny Jones of Semper Fit Athletics, With the eventual return of deployed Marines, “things will return to normal,” he said.

As it is, 3rd Force will contend only with 3rd Marine Division/Expeditionary Force, host Marine Corps Base Camp Butler and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. All four teams are Okinawa-based.

“I can’t speak for Iwakuni or Hospital,” Jones said, “but duty comes first. That’s the way it is in the military community.”

From the four teams, six players will be picked for the All-Marine tryout camp Aug. 14-Sept. 4 at Cherry Point Air Station, N.C.

They’ll battle for spots on the All-Marine team, which competes in the All-Armed Forces tournament Sept. 5-10 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Selected All-Armed Forces players then move on to the Amateur Softball Association nationals Sept. 15-18 at Sanford, Fla.

Even with an abbreviated field, a third straight championship is no certainty for 3rd Force, which brings what Turner calls a “very young team” to the tournament.

Gone from the maroon-and-white are steady veterans such as outfielders Gary Chaney and Benji Hammond and pitchers Lee Burket and Richie Krause, each of whom had participated in an All-Marine tryout camp or All-Armed Forces tournament. Only Krause remains, as Far East Officials Association umpire; the rest either transferred or retired.

“It’s going to be hard filling the voids,” said Turner, who will take the mound for 3rd Force. Just two of his players — Dan Sullivan and Eduardo Santiesteban — have All-Marine camp experience. Four others, including Turner, play open ball on the island.

Given the retirements, transfers and deployments, Turner questions whether selected players from Okinawa can earn All-Marine team berths.

“Our operational commitments, we’re down to three or four competitive open teams on the island,” he said.

“Most wouldn’t have qualified as an open team five or six years ago. The level of softball itself has been down over the last two or three years.”

Marine Forces Pacific Regional Softball Tournament

Dates:Aug. 1-3, 2005.

Site:Field 1, Foster Field Complex, Camp Foster, Okinawa.

Format:Single round-robin, four teams in one pool, first day. Double-elimination playoffs, all teams eligible, last two days.

Schedule of events:First round-robin game 3 p.m. Aug. 1. Last round-robin game 9 p.m. Aug. 1. First double-elimination playoff game 3 p.m. Aug. 2. Championship game 6 p.m. Aug 3; second “if necessary” game to follow at 7:15 p.m.

Awards:11-player All-Tournament team, All-Tournament coach, six players selected to All-Marine tryout camp.

Participating teams:3rd Marine Division/Expeditionary Force, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, 3rd Force Service Support Group and Marine Corps Base Camp S.D. Butler, Okinawa.

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