Senior center-forward Jay Irwin, coach Tim Pujol and junior right wing Matt Irwin of Yokota High School. Twice the threesome has won Rising Sun Bowl football titles, twice they've enjoyed 20-win basketball seasons, and last May they came within two goals of winning the school's first Far East High School Boys Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament titles.

Senior center-forward Jay Irwin, coach Tim Pujol and junior right wing Matt Irwin of Yokota High School. Twice the threesome has won Rising Sun Bowl football titles, twice they've enjoyed 20-win basketball seasons, and last May they came within two goals of winning the school's first Far East High School Boys Class AA (large schools) Soccer Tournament titles. (Dave Ornauer / S&S)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Yokota Panthers boys soccer team began practice on March 4, as the wind swept a piercing chill over Bonk Field.

Despite the frigid weather, a fire burned brightly inside Yokota’s three-sport-star brothers, Matt and Jay Irwin ... a fire stoked by the memory of the lowest light in Yokota’s 2002 season.

Last May 31, a day 40 degrees warmer than the 11-degree wind chill on that first practice day, the finest season in Yokota soccer history ended in disappointment, in the rain at Okinawa’s Mike Petty Stadium, thanks to a handball call in the final minute.

The ensuing penalty kick that gave Kubasaki a 2-1 victory is as fresh in the Irwins’ minds as if it occured yesterday. It’s a memory they want to erase, to make what’s already been a stellar school year complete, and take care of one last bit of unfinished business.

“I know we could have won that game,” said Jay, a senior center-forward. “We remember it a lot.”

“We’re building our whole season around Far East,” added Matt, a junior striker. “That’s our main goal.”

Sports siblings are common at high schools throughout the Pacific, mainly because of their small size and the large percentage of students involved in athletics and other activities.

Should the Irwins capture that Far East championship, they’d become perhaps the most decorated set of brothers in Yokota High’s 30-year history:

With Jay at quarterback and Matt as a receiver and backup QB, the Panthers went 21-2 on the football field — with Rising Sun Bowl titles the past two seasons. The two losses came via forfeit last fall.As guards and swingmen, the Irwins have played for two Panthers basketball teams that have won 20 or more games.Last soccer season, they won the Japan Soccer League and Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools titles, en route to the ill-fated Far East final.Tim Pujol, who’s coached the Irwins in all three sports and has coached in the DODEA-Pacific system for 10 years, calls the Irwins the best brother combination he’s had.

“If we’re talking about their effect on an athletic program, they’re first,” Pujol said.

The Irwins shrug off their success as an outgrowth of their athletic backgrounds.

“Sports has pretty much been our life,” Matt said.

“We just go out and have fun, work hard in practice, we just leave it out on the field and go from there,” Jay added.

It’s been that way ever since the sons of Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Irwin, a legal officer, were old enough to pick up, kick or dribble a ball.

They’ve played sports in a variety of places that calls to mind the journeys of Marco Polo.

Matt, born in Belleville, Ill., and Jay, born in Columbus, Miss., lived as toddlers at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., George Air Force Base, Calif. and Bolling Air Force Base, Md., before spending their formative years overseas.

At Aviano and Vicenza, Italy, the Irwins cut their teeth on the soccer pitch, while learning some of the language.

“Sometimes we talk in Italian on the field,” Matt said.

They picked up rugby rudiments during a one-year stint in London. Then came their first Pacific tour, at Yongsan Garrison in South Korea, where the Irwins learned football under former Yongsan Raiders coach Bob Collins and basketball under Seoul American coach Steve Boyd.

“You’re going to enjoy having them on your teams,” Collins told Pujol in an e-mail just before the Irwins transfered in the fall of 2001 to Yokota.

“It’s tough to lose kids of that quality,” said Boyd, whose Falcons teams have battled the Irwins and the Panthers in basketball and soccer since they departed Seoul.

Though they’re a lot alike, they Irwins have their differences.

“Both brought a lot of continuity and they’re supporters of each other. You can’t ask for any more as a coach. Responsible kids with a lot of character,” Boyd said.

“[But] they’re both strikingly different personalities. Jay’s high-spirited. Matt’s the silent type. You didn’t have a better leader than Jay. Matt did things through tremendous play.”

Differences aside, the brothers both feel that their closeness helps make them better athletes.

“[We have] better chemistry,” Matt said. “We’ve learned a lot from each other.”

“I feed off Matt’s aggressive play,” Jay added. “We’re not afraid to yell at each other and motivate each other.”

The Irwins hope motivation will help the Panthers take care of that piece of unfinished business that sticks in their craws.

It will mean overcoming a huge boulder. Since the advent of DODEA-Pacific soccer tournaments in 1998, Okinawa has won all six Class AA titles.

“We know what to do,” said Matt, adding that the disappointment of coming so close a season ago is motivation enough. “Having been through it once and losing as we did, it’ll be easier the second time around.”

We Are Fam-a-lee!

A sampling of Pacific high school family sports combinations:

Yokota — Senior Nathan and junior Dustin Haney, wrestling; seniors Nick and Blake Reinhold, wrestling; senior Mike and freshman Heather Chamberlain, football and wrestling; senior Jay and junior Matt Irwin, football, basketball, soccer; senior Cheyenne and sophomore Danita Ross, basketball; senior Shannon and junior Shawna Vitarbo, basketball and soccer.

Seoul American — Steve Boyd, boys basketball coach, Patricia and Lauren Boyd, cheerleading coach and cheerleader; sophomore Ashley and freshman Whitney Grandy, basketball; senior Chris and freshman Brian Glasser, basketball.

Zama American — Senior Frances and freshman David Burnett, basketball and wrestling.

Guam High — Juniors Marcus and Michael Burdios, basketball.

Taegu American — Sophomore Ashley Gooch, basketball player and daughter of Michelle Chandler, basketball coach.

Robert D. Edgren — Sarah Richardson, basketball coach and mother of senior Desirae and freshman Shamar Riddick, basketball; senior Ann and junior Samantha Johnson, volleyball and soccer.

Matthew C. Perry — Senior Aaron and junior Thomas Williamson, basketball; seniors Reggie and Tia Fluellen, basketball; senior Daniel and sophomore Adam Krievs, football; senior Chris and sophomore Nick Riegel, soccer; senior Donovan and sophomore Nate Albia, football; sophomore Govin and freshman Marinor Ifurung, basketball; sophomore Matthew and freshman Mitchell Bierschenk, soccer; senior Missy and sophomore Jacob Kuffel, soccer; sophomores Greg McCoy and Chris Phillips, tennis; seniors Chrystal and Christina Hawthorne, volleyball; seniors Andy and Chris Allison, football and baseball.

Osan American — Junior Steve and sophomore Mina Davis, basketball; senior Jennifer and junior Sarah Gates, basketball; junior Kim Gulley, basketball player and daughter of Bill Gulley, assistant coach.

Nile C. Kinnick — Juniors Brenden and sophomore Leonard Lynce, basketball; freshman Travis Ekmark, basketball player and son of Bob Ekmark, JV coach; senior Shawna and freshman Ashley Melin, basketball.

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.

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