Quality, not quantity will have to be key for defending champs

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 Sophomore Cody Sego takes the reins at quarterback this season for the Kadena Panthers.    Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes
From Stripes.com
Sophomore Cody Sego takes the reins at quarterback this season for the Kadena Panthers. Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes

Quality, not quantity will have to be key for defending champs

by: Dave Ornauer | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: September 03, 2015

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa – Jason Bland didn’t get very many rushing attempts during his junior year in Kadena football black and gold. But when he did carry the ball, he played like a man possessed.

The then-junior running back ripped off huge run after big run, averaging more than 12 yards per carry … yet he only served as an understudy to one of the bigger running-back names in Panthers football lore – Justin Sego, he of 2,929 yards and 36 touchdowns during his final two seasons.

Now, after Kadena captured a Pacific record-tying fourth Far East Division I title last year, Sego has moved on, suiting up in football (and perhaps baseball, too) at Whitworth University, an NCAA Division III school in Spokane, Wash.

So it’s time for the Panthers to move on – “Diversifying our portfolio,” longtime Kadena coach Sergio Mendoza said. And perhaps time for Bland to step as well, although with a vast wealth of running backs, the battle for starting slots continued even as training camp ended.

“Nothing is settled,” Mendoza said Monday, four days before the Panthers’ season opener at home against Kubasaki, the team the Panthers vanquished 41-27 in the D-I title game last Nov. 8. “We don’t know what we really have right now.”

Who will get the starting nod will likely be a gametime decision, Mendoza said. Kickoff Friday is at 6 p.m. at Ryukyu Middle School.

Bland would seem like the heir apparent, given his performance last season, though he battled a leg injury during camp last month.

“He could have started for any other team in the Pacific. The only reason he didn’t (start for Kadena) is we had Sego,” Mendoza said. “He’s a tough runner. He’s even more hungry” than he was last season.

Still, Bland faced some stiff competition among Kadena veterans and a couple of newcomers.

Senior Dominic Santanelli appears ticketed for the fullback spot he held last year, while junior veteran Karl Gerstner is also vying for a running-back slot along with junior newcomer Hunter Corwin and senior transfer Keith Duenas, from Great Oak High School in Temecula, Calif.

“I’m excited about our backfield depth and talent,” Mendoza said.

Whomever he settles on in the backfield will get some solid escort from a line that Mendoza says is one of the best he’s fielded in his 11 years at the Panthers’ helm, not just because of their ability but intelligence as well.

“They’re very smart,” Mendoza said of a group that takes plenty of Advanced Placement courses.

“I’ve never been more excited about our returning offensive linemen. They’re really as solid a unit as we’ve ever had. The interior is looking better than we’ve had in the last five years. The interior has a lot of promise.”

So deep is the unit that Mendoza was able to move junior Siulagisipai Fuimaono to tight end, something Mendoza says will “be a lot of fun.”

And the name Sego hasn’t disappeared – Justin’s sophomore brother Cody takes over at quarterback. “He looks really good,” Mendoza said.

But not everything has a silver lining in Panthers country, he said. Only 38 players turned out for camp, the smallest number Mendoza says he’s had; more may come out later this week “but not much more,” he said.

Defensively, the Panthers must overcome the loss of two-year starting safety Jamario Harris along with edge pass rushers John McBain and Boysie Gordon.

But Gerstner and fellow junior Dan Frazier are ticketed to replace them. “Gerstner, he’s a hammer,” Mendoza said.

Despite the low turnout, the Panthers are a “good group,” Mendoza said. “Maybe it’s a carryover from last year. We have a lot of self starters, they don’t have to be jump started. I’m hugely excited.”

ornauer.dave@stripes.com