Never in the five-year history of the U.S. Forces Japan-American Football League has so much been on the line in the final weekend of the regular season.
Yokota, Misawa and Yokosuka, enter the weekend with a chance to finish first, second or third.
Last-place Atsugi (0-5) can play the role of spoiler. The White Dolphins could dash Misawa’s hope of a regular-season championship and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory.
“At this point, you can’t make a guess,” Commissioner Kyle Rhodus said of Saturday’s matchups, pitting Yokota at Yokosuka and Misawa at Atsugi, both at 4 p.m., to determine the field for the playoffs starting Sept. 4.
Only one thing is certain at this point: Atsugi plays its semifinal game on the road against the regular-season champion.
The rest of the field? A total jumble.
“That’s the way I saw it” during the league’s preseason jamboree on June 19, Yokosuka coach Isaac Lee said. “Everybody had a chance to compete.”
“It’s great for the league,” said quarterback and assistant coach Jacob Dowdell of league leader Yokota (4-1). “Everybody has a chance to stay involved.”
The Raiders would have clinched first place had they won at Misawa last Saturday. Instead, the Marauders edged Yokota 27-26 in two overtimes.
Yokosuka topped Atsugi 24-12, tying Misawa (3-2) for second place, setting up numerous tiebreaker possibilities — and giving all four league coaches a built-in distraction, keeping their players from thinking about what could happen and keeping their minds on Saturday’s games.
“We know what we have to do,” Dowdell said of the Raiders. “We just line up 11-on-11 and play until the whistle’s blown. ... We don’t want to put seeds of doubt or confusion in anybody’s head. We just line up and play and what happens, happens.”
Rather than frustrating the Raiders, Saturday’s loss “is lighting a fire” under the players, Dowdell said. “At the same time, everybody recognizes how good it is for the league to have good competition, down to the last second.”
Yokota controls its own destiny. A victory over Yokosuka will give the Raiders their first regular-season crown.
Misawa and Yokosuka each need to win and hope the point margins in both games fall their way.
“The key is, don’t lose focus on what has made you successful,” Misawa coach John Hemphill said.
“If you start looking at what other teams have to do and the different scenarios, it’s really easy to get off the goal. You can’t get caught up in all the other stuff, can’t let that creep its head into your huddle.”
Teams and players also can’t lament what’s already happened.
“We can’t undo what’s been done,” he said. “We have to win and let the chips fall where they may.”
Despite Atsugi’s 0-5 record, Hemphill noted that the White Dolphins ended their streak of four shutout losses by scoring 12 points against Yokosuka.
“My biggest challenge this week [is to] keep the guys from looking too far ahead,” Hemphill said. “They might get upended by Atsugi. We don’t want to overlook them.”
The thought that Misawa’s hopes could hinge on Atsugi has the White Dolphins players “excited about playing in that kind of game,” Atsugi coach Ray Shabazz said.
“We have nothing to lose. Misawa has everything to lose,” Shabazz said. “We’re going to go out, give it 100 percent and try to win. Putting points on the board was a confidence booster for us.”
Such a tight finish is the best thing that could have happened for the league, Rhodus said.
In the past four seasons, 32 games, including the 2001 and ’03 league title contests, were called off because of duty, forfeits, weather and transportation problems. Not one of this season’s 10 games has suffered the same fate.
“The league has gone relatively flawless, as good as we could have hoped for coming into the season,” said Rhodus, Yokosuka Naval Base’s MWR athletics director.
“And having the league totally undecided heading into the last week, with three teams having a chance to win (the regular-season title) is an exciting prospect.”