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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Gerry Panetta’s been in this position before, standing atop the heap after round-robin play in the Marine Forces Pacific Regional Soccer Tournament.

But winning five straight matches and earning a first-round bye in the single-elimination playoffs that began Thursday is largely meaningless, said the coach of the defending champion, Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

“Everybody’s been holding back,” Panetta said of the three-day round-robin phase of the tournament, which ended Wednesday. “Tomorrow, you’ll see a whole different level of play. Lose once and you’re out.”

It’s happened to Hawaii before. After going unbeaten through round-robin and the semifinals, the team ended up falling to 3rd Force Service Support Group in the 2000 championship game.

“Everybody’s got to bring their heart,” Panetta said. “All that counts is heart. Hopefully, we’ll keep playing well and bring the trophy back to Hawaii.”

That’s not saying Hawaii and the other five teams in the tournament took round-robin play lightly, since the reward for finishing in the top two meant an easier road to Friday’s final.

“Depending on your seeding, you can get more rest and play less games,” said coach Bradley Martinez of fourth-seeded Marine Corps Base Camp Butler. If one of the last four teams, “you have to work harder to get to the finals.”

Which might explain why coach John Idland of Iwakuni Air Station was doing more than his share of scoreboard watching.

Iwakuni tied with 3rd Force at 3-2 in pool play, and Idland thought he’d earned the No. 2 seed by virtue of allowing fewer goals that 3rd Force. But the first tiebreaker in head-to-head competition gave 3rd Force the seed because it edged Iwakuni 3-2 on Tuesday.

“And that was a team we should not have lost to,” Idland said. “This is not what I was looking forward to. This changes my whole strategy.”

Champions in 2000 and 2001, 3rd Force began the tournament on a low, losing its first two games, but closed round-robin play with a rush.

“It’s important to have momentum going into the playoffs,” coach Nicholas Peters said. “It can work one of two ways. It can give you overconfidence but sometimes confidence keeps you strong and steady. This helps. We needed this, not just for a good seed, but as a moral victory.”

Base entered the playoffs on a low, having opened with two victories only to lose its next three. But those losses helped Base figure out what it had to do, one of its players said.

“It’s more about finding out how people play,” said Adam Wentzell. “We’ve all played each other once. We’ve learned where to strike and where you can’t, the stronger players, the weaker players, you learn how they can be beaten. And the playoffs is where you put it all together.”

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