USFJ-AFL coaches celebrate 'awesome' season
Commissioner Kyle Rhodus and the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League have more to celebrate Saturday than playing the championship game between the Misawa Marauders and four-time defending champion Yokosuka Seahawks.
Rhodus and league coaches are calling this the most successful season in the circuit’s five-year history.
“I think it was awesome,” said Rhodus, who might understandably have felt apprehensive this season, his first on the job.
Yokosuka’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation athletic director, elected USFJ-AFL commissioner by league vote in January, inherited a league that lost its three-team Okinawa contingent and had 32 games canceled the past four seasons, including the 2001 and 2003 championship games.
With four teams, the league thrived this season. No games were called off.
“Even more important than not having a cancellation was the competitiveness on the field,” Rhodus said. Yokosuka, Misawa and Yokota tied for first and the top three playoff seeds were decided by points tiebreaker.
“To have the top three finish tied for first in the regular season and the way it happened was just awesome,” Rhodus said. “Overtime games, last-minute plays that decided games. I’m pleased with the season and I’m pleased with the teams and the players.”
The season culminates with Saturday’s clash, a rematch of the 2002 championship game which Yokosuka won 16-6 over Misawa.
Saturday’s game coincides with the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A pregame ceremony includes a moment of silence to remember the victims and those who’ve been killed in the war on terror. Yokosuka Naval Base commander Capt. King Dietrich will toss the coin at midfield.
Right down to the last-place Atsugi White Dolphins, who played weekly with a shorthanded crew, Rhodus and coaches heaped praise on all involved in the league this season.
“It’s nice to play for the championship,” Seahawks coach Isaac Lee said. “But you wouldn’t have a championship to play for if it weren’t for the league.”
For Atsugi coach Ray Shabazz to hold the team together as he did is a tribute, Lee said. The 12 points in a 24-12 loss to Yokosuka in the fifth week of the season was the most Atsugi scored in a game this season.
“I saw a bunch of people coming together,” Lee said of the White Dolphins. “They hung a couple of touchdowns on us. He was able to do some things. To go out and give it to you like that for four quarters, I think it speaks for itself. You’d have to give him coach of the year.”
The Seahawks face their own tough test Saturday in the shape of a Marauders team that beat them 27-6 on July 17 at Misawa Air Base, then fell 18-12 two weeks later at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility — in four overtimes.
Yokosuka picks up a handful of players who’ve been at sea with the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group. But Lee said that makes little difference in a championship contest.
“You can throw everything out,” he said. “It’s going to be a slugfest. No finesse, no trickery, this is mano-a-mano. Put a hat on somebody, blocking and tackling, the way I love to see football played.”
Their main job likely will be stopping speedy, shifty Misawa running back James Coleman, the league’s leading rusher with 1,044 yards on 153 carries. “He’s been running over people,” Lee said.
Assistant coach Thomas Mangan said the Marauders, who’ve lost to the Seahawks five of the last seven times they’ve played, including all three meetings in 2002, have some long memories of those frustrations.
“We still have some players from  who have a really bitter taste in their mouths from that,” Mangan said. “A handful of the first-year players haven’t been able to get over that four-overtime loss.”
And it’s been 19 years since any Misawa football team has won even a share of a championship: The Misawa Jets shared the 1985 crown with Yokota in the old USFJ league.
“Misawa’s looking to make history,” Mangan said.
“It’s been a good season, an interesting season and the best is yet to come,” Lee said.
“We’ll have to wait and see how competitive the game is,” Rhodus added. “But I don’t think we could have asked for a better ending to the season.”