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Kadena junior Manuel Duran chugs down the home stretch of the 1,600-meter relay during Saturday’s Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools Track and Field Meet at Kinuta Park Athletics Complex, Tokyo. Okinawa Activities Council teams competed in the Kanto meet for the first time as non-scoring guests.

Kadena junior Manuel Duran chugs down the home stretch of the 1,600-meter relay during Saturday’s Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools Track and Field Meet at Kinuta Park Athletics Complex, Tokyo. Okinawa Activities Council teams competed in the Kanto meet for the first time as non-scoring guests. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

The region’s track-and-field athletes and coaches could have been forgiven this spring if they were discouraged by word that a season-ending Far East championship meet wouldn’t be funded.

They seem to have had the opposite reaction.

Meet organizers, teams and athletes took matters into their own hands, combining recruiting, coaching commitment, athlete dedication and a healthy dose of fund-raising. The results? Since the 2003 season, the sport has grown more rapidly than any other Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific sport without a season-ending Far East tournament:

The Mike Petty Memorial Meet has grown from a five-team event in 2003 to a high of 13 teams in the fourth such gathering last month.The Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools league championship for the first time Saturday welcomed all three Okinawa Activities Council member teams as invited, non-scoring entities. But the meet has so outgrown itself, organizers said, that starting in 2007, the league will stage a region-wide invitational meet separate from the Kanto championship — giving the Pacific region two major invitationals. None existed before 2003.A sixth DODDS Japan school soon may have a track program. Misawa principal Michael Johnson says Robert D. Edgren High School may fully sanction a track team as soon as next spring.And Saturday at Tokyo’s Kinuta Park Athletics Complex saw the first-ever gathering of five DODDS-Japan track-and-field squads: Kadena and Kubasaki of Okinawa, Zama American, Nile C. Kinnick and Yokota of Japan.Misawa, Kadena, Kubasaki and Okinawa’s Zion Christian Academy’s teams raised thousands of dollars through events such as bake sales and car washes to travel to compete at Kinuta.

And for their labor, they got to run, jump and throw in day-long, pouring-down rain.

“It’s a necessary thing,” said Kadena coach Sergio Mendoza, worth putting the fund-raising “burden on our shoulders.”

How much of a burden? Try about $6,000 to send Kadena’s eight athletes to Tokyo. Kubasaki, with 25 in tow, had to scrounge up more than $20,000.

“It shows that the kids are taking a genuine interest,” said Kubasaki coach Charles Burns, who has 75 athletes on his team this season; Kadena had 50 and Zion 20. “If that many kids are willing to sweat and work hard on and off the track, we should go out of our way to help them.”

Mendoza said, “We’ve demonstrated that the kids need a competition to culminate a season of hard work.”

But DODDS-Pacific’s financial climate won’t permit another Far East tournament sport, said FEAC chair Don Hobbs. “If anything, we should be feeling fortunate that Far East activities haven’t been cut.”

Acknowledging that the coaches should be complimented for the sport’s growth, Hobbs said, “I’m not ruling out anything.” But he said budget constraints make it unlikely the Far East Activities Council will fund a tournament.

So the coaches plan to press on.

Acknowledging that the two-day Petty Meet, which fielded 255 athletes in April, “has outgrown me,” Burns said the field may have to be streamlined to just each team’s elite athletes.

The one-day Kanto meet with Okinawa schools as invited guests also had outgrown itself, said Craig Eby of Christian Academy In Japan.

Burns also feels the Kanto has the same potential for growth as the Petty meet. “It’s fantastic to see where track has gone the last few years and where it yet might grow,” he said.

“Hopefully,” Mendoza said, “we can show that it can be done, and that it’s important to hundreds of kids.”

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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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