NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan — The Atsugi White Dolphins have lost their last 13 games dating to last season. They haven’t won a league title since 1999. This season, Atsugi’s offense hasn’t scored; two touchdowns have come on special teams and one on defense.

On Saturday at Misawa, they will face the Misawa Air Base Maruaders in the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League playoffs. In their two regular-season meetings, Misawa outscored Atsugi 75-0.

So why is Atsugi coach Danny Estrada smiling?

“Everybody has already written us off,” he said of the team’s “nothing to lose, everything to gain” attitude.

“We’re using that as motivation. We have something to prove not only to the league, but to ourselves. We know we have the best talent in the league. It’s scary to think about what we can do.”

While Atsugi (0-6) looks to upset regular-season champion Misawa (4-1), Yokota (5-1) will entertain five-time defending league champion Yokosuka (2-3) in the other semifinal Saturday. It will be another battle of teams that played two one-sided games this season. Pass-happy Yokota outscored Yokosuka by a combined 46-6 in their two meetings.

Kickoffs are 2 p.m. at Misawa and 7 p.m. at Yokota.

Given Atsugi’s dismal regular-season, it’s easy to dismiss Estrada’s musings as just talk.

But Estrada says he knows what his team is capable of doing — the White Dolphins won a preseason scrimmage against the Yokota Warriors, who occupied first place until the final week of the regular season, and held their own in the preseason jamboree June 4 at Ikego Heights Naval Housing Facility.

Duty commitments and injuries got in the way of keeping that momentum, Estrada said.

“We had a lot of turmoil getting everybody on the field at the same time,” he said. “We went into some games dressing only 15 or 16 people, sometimes putting eight or nine guys who’d never played before on the field. It was either that or forfeit.”

Now that key players such as fullback/linebacker J.J. Jones and tailback Michael Hodges have returned, Estrada feels confident of a turnaround.

“The team that beat Yokota in that scrimmage game, that was where we wanted to be. Now, we have all those people back, our playmakers and leaders on and off the field. We expect to be competitive,” Estrada said.

Special teams could be a strong point against Misawa; return specialist Kelvin Lewis ran back punts of 93 and 47 yards for touchdowns and had another called back on a penalty.

But Estrada hopes more than anything that having his offensive line intact for the first time this season may help generate points on offense at long last.

“We’ve had different starting lines all season,” he said. “We’ll have our starting unit this time.”

But if Atsugi is being regarded as an afterthought, don’t tell Misawa coach J.D. Hemphill.

“We’re going to play them like they’re 7-0, instead of winless,” he said, adding he plans to show a videotape of Misawa’s 22-0 championship game loss to the Seahawks last fall at Yokosuka. “And I’ll ask them, ‘Is this what you want to be?’ You have to take everybody as seriously as possible.”

Yokota player/coach Jacob Dowdell says he plans to have his team take a similar attitude at home against Yokosuka, despite the Warriors’ two one-sided victories over the Seahawks.

“We’re looking to execute, and look at it one game at a time, one play at a time,” Dowdell said, adding that he’s not planning to “jazz up” the playbook with anything special, but to go in with the intent to “play hard-nosed football.”

“We’ve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we execute, we can beat anybody in the league,” Dowdell said.

USFJ-AFL playoffs


Saturday, Aug. 20

Atsugi at Misawa, 2 p.m.

Yokosuka at Yokota, 7 p.m.

Torii Bowl

Saturday, Aug. 27

Semifinal winners, at highest remaining seed, time TBD

author picture
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.

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up