NIMITZ HILL, Guam — Longtime observers of high school basketball on Guam might be surprised to know Joe Taitano is coaching the Guam High Panthers this year. After all, this is a guy so associated with John F. Kennedy Islanders that his blood might well run not red but the Islanders’ green and gold.

So the 63-year-old veteran of 27 years in Guam public schools could have been forgiven for having mixed feelings before the Panthers’ 2006 season debut Monday.

“It was hard for me to wear another color shirt for the game,” Taitano said Tuesday by telephone, about 24 hours after his Panthers routed the Southern Dolphins 72-50.

After a close first half, the Panthers broke it open, outscoring the Dolphins 43-21 in the second half. Deevon Carpenter had 19 points, nine in the fourth quarter and seven rebounds; Brandon Buford tossed in 17 points and Ashton Adams grabbed 10 rebounds. Nine of 11 Panthers scored, including Anthony Williams with 10 points.

It was a smashing debut for a team that Taitano characterized as “relatively new;” only one player, Buford, saw significant playing time on varsity last year.

“But they’re willing to listen and learn and they have discipline,” Taitano said. “Any time you have players who are able to do that, you’re going to have a very, very competitive team. That’s what I’m seeing in this team. Last night was indicative … I was very impressed. I think we can be good.”

And Taitano’s stats show he knows what “good” is all about. Since taking the JFK job in 1979, he’s won six Guam high school league titles, a Far East Class AA title with the JFK girls in 1983 and took the Islanders to runner-up finishes in 2003 and ’04. His team also won the Asia Christmas Classic in 1989, beating Seoul American. A longtime cross country coach, he led JFK to a Far East meet team title in 2000.

Taitano said he’d thought about retiring after last school year, even had turned in his papers to the government of Guam, when Guam High, in the Domestic Defense Elementary & Secondary School system, offered him a job.

“They made me feel welcome, they made me feel like I was important,” Taitano said. “I decided to go with the flow.”

The operative word in that sentence appears to be “go.” Taitano took over the Panthers cross country team last fall and came away with a Far East meet gold medalist in Matt Evans.

“The team is turning some heads,” Taitano said. “Good notoriety this year. It’s nice for us to have that respect. We have coaches here saying that Guam High is a team to look out for.”

With the season just opened, whether the Panthers will do similarly likely will depend on how the team develops. But beating Southern, with its coaching tandem of winners Felipe Candaso and Sid Guzman, is a good start, Taitano said.

“I’d have been happy with a simple win but when you go out there against Guzman and Candaso and come out of there with a 22-point win, that’s something,” he said. “But one win doesn’t make a season. There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”

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