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After the Okinawa Activities Council’s most dangerous and exciting football player of the past decade graduated in June, Kadena Buccaneers coach Brian Wetherington has wrestled with the question: How do you replace A.J. Morgan?

“You don’t,” Wetherington said. “You hope somebody can step up and fill the void and have other players come in and pick up the pieces.”

It’s a tall order for Wetherington, entering his fourth season as head coach of the defending champion Bucs, titlists in two of the past three seasons.

Morgan, with 1,689 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns, helped the Bucs to a 7-2 mark. Most times, he was put under center and left to work his magic, with his teammates doing what they could to plow the road.

“This year, we’re relying on each other as a team,” Wetherington said. “What he left behind is for everybody to play as a team.”

That will mean seniors tight end Chris Nelson, fullback Jeremy Galvez and quarterback Tyler Schmidt taking leadership roles, with Schmidt and junior Darnell Womach stepping into Morgan’s featured-back/quarterback role and sophomore Gary Wright catching more passes at wideout.

Their leadership will be valuable, since the Bucs — as well as the league’s other three teams — lack experience particularly on the line.

The 2004 season starts Friday, with the Bucs taking on the Kadena Islanders (6-2 last year), at Kadena High at 4 p.m., and Kubasaki’s Shogun and Samurai, both 1-7 last year, squaring off at 7 p.m. at Camp Foster’s Mike Petty Stadium.

The four teams play a double round-robin schedule, followed by a two-week playoff, with the champion scheduled to travel to the site of the Japan Football League champion for Rising Sun Bowl VI on Nov. 13.

While the teams average 35-player rosters, the Bucs and Wetherington knows that injuries can rob a team of its depth.

“That will throw off what we started, weaken some areas. We might have to shove a few key people around. But we’ll still be OK,” Wetherington said.

As for the Islanders, third-year coach Sergio Mendoza doesn’t have the human “seven-man sled” that blocked handsomely for returning running backs Keith Loving, David McCowan and Terrance Crenshaw. Graduation depleted the line, and Cole Maxey, the unit’s heart and soul, transferred to Germany.

Grady Pennell, the all-island center, is the only lineman returning to his position of a year ago.

“We have some gaps to fill,” Mendoza said. “We have a very young line, average age 14 to 15 years. We have tons of speedy skill kids but not many with experience and size. We’re going to have to be creative, use that speed wisely.”

At Kubasaki, the Shogun’s coaching tandem of Fred Bales and Charles Burns has been broken up after five years, with Bales moving over to the Samurai. He’s the team’s third coach in the four years since Jim Hall transferred to Naples, Italy.

“It’s a beginning. Everybody’s beginning,” Bales said of taking the helm of a 1-7 team that has some semblance of leadership, with seven returning starters, but mostly young, inexperienced players.

“We have some returners back for a new, fresh start and a new head coach,” he said. “We’re building one block at a time, from the ground up. We’re excited about the season and for the future.”

Burns is even more bereft of veteran talent, with just four returning starters. He likens this season to 1993, when he fielded mostly freshmen. That group won the league in 1995.

“It’s going to take quite a bit of work, but we’ll get there,” Burns said. “Inexperience is one of the things we have to deal with.”

Between Kadena’s lack of size and Kubasaki’s inexperience, Wetherington thinks the four teams are more evenly matched this season than last, when Kadena dominated.

“It’s more balanced this year,” Wetherington said. “All four teams have a chance. But our experienced players, they know what it takes to get there and they’ll want to go back and represent Okinawa in the Rising Sun Bowl.”

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