Could this be year that Kadena breaks through?

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 Coach Willie Ware hopes his Kadena Panthers can take the final step to a Far East Division I Tournament title, after finishing second twice and third once in the last three seasons.    Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes
From Stripes.com
Coach Willie Ware hopes his Kadena Panthers can take the final step to a Far East Division I Tournament title, after finishing second twice and third once in the last three seasons. Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes

Could this be year that Kadena breaks through?

by: Dave Ornauer | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 04, 2014

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – So close, yet so far.

That’s been the narrative for Kadena girls basketball the last three seasons under coach Willie Ware. He says he hopes the Panthers have the tools to erase the bitter memories of one third-place and two runner-up finishes and take the last step to a Far East Division I title.

“We’ve been so close so many times,” Ware said. “We’ve got some unfinished business and the girls are hungry.”

Especially hungry are four seniors, guard Alicia Vaughan and forwards Jasmine Rhodes, Elva Harris and Brea Garrett, who have been on varsity since Ware took over the team in the fall of 2011. “This is a special year for them,” Ware said.

Time will tell, he said, whether Kadena is ready to take that final step. The Panthers have been dominant in Okinawa the past 11 seasons, winning league titles every season and only losing once in that span to Kubasaki.

“They know what it takes,” Ware said. “They’ve been there. So, we’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going back to basics, fundamentals, working on stuff that we need to hopefully get us back.”

While most of the Panthers haven’t enjoyed the feeling of capturing titles, one of them – junior Rheagan Wyche – tasted victory before transferring from D-II champ Daegu.

Together with the six holdovers and three other newcomers, Ware says he likes what he sees. “The team is very confident,” he said. “They communicate a lot. They get along great. It’s like family.”

Still, there’s that mountain to climb in ASIJ, which prepared for the start of its title defense by going 5-2 in last weekend’s Hong Kong International School Holiday Tournament – where the Mustangs suffered their only two losses last year en route to their first D-I title since 1992.

ASIJ is led by holdovers Mia Weinland, Kate Latimore, Ella Noll and Allie Rogers and are joined by sophomore Elyse Davidson, whose father played for ASIJ in the mid-1980s.

While it lost senior leaders Maya Tromburg, Liz Thornton and Joey Yamada, this is “probably a more talented team on the outside and inside. We’ve gotten more experience, they’re a coachable group, so I like our chances,” coach Julie Rogers said.

Ware feels there’s every chance the two teams might meet again at center court Feb. 19 at Yokosuka Naval Base.

“We’re pretty much the same team, but they’re just like we are,” Ware said. “It’s going to boil down to execution and how badly the girls want it.”

At the Division II level, only three players return for champion Daegu, so the race appears wide open. Matthew C. Perry has height in Ani and Lebet Erhart and an experienced guard in Naomi Ziola, and is calling on a cadre of players from other sports, Bobbi Hill and Sakura Fleming from soccer and Angel Cadavos of volleyball, to bolster the ranks.

Coach April Kelley says it’s “too soon to tell” if that mix might mean a title, but that the new players could be “key to making Perry contenders. This is a young squad, with plenty of freshmen, no seniors and are eager to learn the game.”

ornauer.dave@stripes.com