YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Mindful of its robust tradition — not to mention a Pacific-record 39-game winning streak — the Yokota High School football team went back to work Thursday.
The Panthers, who held voluntary workouts throughout the summer, began mandatory two-a-days with 56 players, their highest total in the last four years. It certainly was an encouraging sign for head coach Tim Pujol, whose team begins its pursuit of a fifth straight Rising Sun Bowl championship when it opens the season Sept. 4 at home against Robert D. Edgren.
“I was pleased,” Pujol said. “We have a lot of new faces out here. But they showed good enthusiasm and a lot of potential. For the first day, I’m pretty happy.”
Yokota will work out twice a day through Aug. 24, with morning-only sessions planned each Saturday. The Panthers will face Japanese high school teams in scrimmages at Bonk Field on Aug. 21 and Aug. 28.
Pujol was missing a few players involved with the base’s summer hire program, which ended Friday, along with others on vacations. But all who showed up Thursday were thrilled to be back in helmets and pads.
“It feels good,” said junior cornerback Shamarr Howell, one of three players who experienced double-digit weight gain through offseason conditioning. “I’ve been working all summer for this. I was even getting up on Saturday mornings to work out with my dad, when everybody else was still asleep.”
Senior fullback Kenny Harris, in his third year with the team, said Yokota’s veterans headed into the preseason highly aware of the team’s impressive streaks.
“They’re a big thing,” he said. “It’s a big focus. But we’ve just got to go day by day.
“I’m pumped for it. I want to get the season going. It’s good to see all the young kids out here, too. We want to teach them what this program is all about.”
Added senior tailback/safety Chris Roach, “It weighs a lot on the seniors. This is our last year, and we want to complete it. When we practice, we’re thinking about it. We want to keep them intact.”
Faced with the Tokyo area’s hottest summer in 10 years, Pujol is keeping tabs on the temperature. He gets the heat-stress condition levels from the base’s weather flight and adjusts water breaks accordingly.
“We’re stressing nutrition and hydration,” he said. “We’re giving them a heads-up on how much they should be taking in.”
Yokota returns six players from the 28 on the roster for last year’s 31-3 win over the Kadena Buccaneers in the Rising Sun Bowl. While the dynasty chatter has been tossed around, Pujol said it’s not part of the team’s focus.
“It’s probably on their minds somewhat, because we had a whole offseason to think about it,” he said, “but we don’t talk about it with them. We’re trying to look further than that. We want to see this new group of young players match the feats of last year’s team.
“If you work hard, winning streaks take care of themselves.”
But it’s nice having lofty goals, Pujol said.
“I think it works mostly in our favor,” he added. “The kids have an expectation level and that helps them carry a little bit of confidence.”