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Freshman Gabriel Ahner is one of a group of underclassmen whom track and field coach Sergio Mendoza says has the potential to equal the feats of Kadena’s "Great Eight" of 2006, which went to the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools meet as a non-scoring guest and won eight of 12 events.

Freshman Gabriel Ahner is one of a group of underclassmen whom track and field coach Sergio Mendoza says has the potential to equal the feats of Kadena’s "Great Eight" of 2006, which went to the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools meet as a non-scoring guest and won eight of 12 events. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — They called it a once-in-a-lifetime group: the "Great Eight," a pack of eight Kadena boys track and field athletes so talented, they won eight gold medals in the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools meet in 2006.

Surely, such epic achievements could never be duplicated, right? "I thought so, too," said their coach, Sergio Mendoza.

He said he compared the feats of Pacific long-jump record holder Manuel Duran, high-jump record holder Marquis Newton and the other six to times and distances posted by the All-Army and All-Navy teams. "They’d have given them a run for their money."

Fast forward to 2009. There are a couple of holes, but Mendoza fields six underclassmen whom he feels can become "Great Eight 2.0."

"There’s some exciting promise there," Mendoza said of a group including sophomores Shariff Coleman, Lotty Smith, Thomas McDonald and Jacob Bishop, freshman Gabriel Ahner and junior James Thompson.

Together, they hold four current Pacific season bests — Coleman 22.74 seconds in the 200 and a 21-foot, 2.72-inch long jump; Smith a 6-2 high jump and Coleman and McDonald half of a 44.04 400 relay team.

And they’ll all be there until they graduate. "That makes for some exciting possibilities," Mendoza said.

Already, Kadena’s boys have excelled on the Pacific stage, with their sixth straight title in the April 3-4 Mike Petty Memorial Meet, plus a 400 relay meet record.

While some have said they might approach the "Great Eight’s" feats in a year or two, Mendoza said their time could be next month’s Kanto Invitational or even Saturday’s Okinawa Activities Council district finals at Koza City Stadium.

"I think we could take eight or nine boys to Kanto and make a statement this year," Mendoza said.

That harkens back to May 13, 2006, when morning rain at Tokyo’s Kinuta Park portended anything but a day for speed and distance.

Kadena won eight of 12 events; the 110 hurdles and high jump were scratched. Duran won the first of his two Kanto long-jump titles plus the 400, Jeff Morton the 100 and 200, Eric Robinson the discus, Tim Nabonne the mile and the Panthers secured both relays.

That was the shining moment for a group that left behind a Pacific long-jump record (Duran, 21-7 in the 2007 Kanto Invitational) and high-jump mark (Marquis Newton 6-5 ½ in the 2005 Petty Meet).

The current group is "making strides" toward similar glory, Mendoza said. "It will be exciting."

"They’ve got the nucleus of a good one," Kubasaki coach Charles Burns said. "If not this year, for sure next year."

Part of the success the last few years can be traced to coaching continuity. Mendoza has helmed the team five of the last six years; prior to that, the coaching post resembled a revolving door.

"It was unfair to the program and the kids," Mendoza said. "Kids buy into not so much a message, but the messenger, somebody who presents a vision. They care about that more than the message. You commit to the kids. Win or lose, we do it together. Show up, do your best, go hard."

So, what’s possible for this group?

"A lot depends on how hard they train, how serious they take it," Burns said. "It all depends on that attitude."

Mendoza thinks Coleman and senior Brandon Rice can push "high 10 seconds" in the 100 and "definitely low 22, maybe high 21s" in the 200. Thompson, meanwhile, could reach as low as 51 in the 400, while Bishop, a Zama transfer, could hit 4:30 in the mile and 9:45 in the two-mile.

The district marks in those events: 10.6 in the 100, 22.8 in the 200, 50.5 in the 400, 4:53 in the mile, 10:22 in the two-mile.

"I just caught up to where I was running last year two weeks ago," Bishop said, adding he’s going to try to match his former Zama teammate, All-American Andrew Quallio, in his senior year.

The most intriguing possibilities may be in the 400 relay; Kadena’s hit 43 seconds twice. "I think we can hit 42," Mendoza said.

All of that has come with one of the team’s key components to start the season wearing another uniform – hurdler Cory Serfoss, another sophomore, transferred over spring break to Nile C. Kinnick.

"Somebody up above was definitely looking out for Kinnick’s track team," coach Al Garrido said of getting Serfoss, who’s stepped into the lineup at 110 and 400 hurdles.

What Mendoza said he really likes is his team’s hunger. "You put up a limit, they bust the limit and say, ‘Give me more.’ All of them say that," he said. "As a coach and a teacher, that has to be one of the most gratifying things you can experience."

As for this weekend, next month’s Kanto or even next year and beyond, the athletes of "Great Eight 2.0" seem to be taking nothing for granted, nor letting success go to their heads.

"We’ll just let the story tell itself," McDonald said.

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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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