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【Wheelchair Rugby】[17th National Wheelchair Rugby Championships]

The sound of banging wheelchairs echoed through the stadium as the Saitama BLITZ members celebrated their victory in the final round of the 17th national wheelchair rugby championships.

8 club teams that had qualified in the preliminary rounds moved on to compete in the top wheelchair rugby competition in Japan, which took place for 3 days from December 17th at the Chiba Port Arena. Amongst the members were those who had represented Japan at the Asia-Oceania Championship in the fall and qualified for the Rio Paralympics. However, they were already faced with a new challenge: to become the champion club of Japan.

Sugano (left) and Wachi's aggressive play shined through in the matches

BLITZ (Saitama) was every team's rival, a 5-time champion that has been leading the national league for many years. And this year's team was comprised of the strongest members yet - ace player Shinichi Shimakawa known for his speed, strategic player Koichi Ogino, fast and powerful Motoki Sugano, and long-serving player Manabu Tamura, the key player for passes.

While the BLITZ have always been most famous for Tamura's counter passes to Shimakawa, and Sugano and Shimakawa's swift attacks, the steady improvements of low-pointers such as Hitoshi Ogawa have been adding further depth and strength to the team.

Competing against BLITZ in the finals was defending champion, the Hokkaido Big Dippers, with Daisuke Ikezaki of the national team amongst its members. The team had beaten the Freedom (Kochi) 57-43 in the semi-final round.

Neither team gave an inch! Winning team took away victory by 1pt

The final match was without a doubt worthy of Japan's top wheelchair rugby competition. After a year, the BLITZ and the Big Dippers found themselves once again face to face in the final round. The match began with Takumi Wachi and the Big Dippers tackling hard and dominating the match. However, the BLITZ were quick to fight back. In the middle of the first period, three BLITZ members intercepted the Big Dipper's ace player Ikezaki and reclaimed advantage over the match. The Hokkaido team was not ready to give up their champion status so easily though, and turned the tables in the third period. Then, after a breathtaking neck-and-neck race in the fourth period, the BLITZ finally avenged their defeat from the previous year and claimed their eighth victory for the first time in 2 years by a score of 56-55.

Perhaps the loudest cries came not from the members on the court but from the bench players in the stand. Even though they did not compete in the final match, the hard work of the younger members contributed to building a positive spirit within the team. “The new members were working the hardest during practice. Since they don't have a lot of experience yet, I hope to keep training them,” commented Shimakawa of the BLITZ.

“We were able to attack strategically like we had discussed in our team meetings,” added Sugano of the BLITZ. “I also learned about my own strengths (compared to players of the same functional level within Japan) and worked on improving them. As a result, I was able to compete with more confidence this year.” Sugano's comments illustrated how both he and his team have stepped up their game.

Ikezaki of the Hokkaido Big Dippers was named MVP

MVP was awarded to Ikezaki of the Hokkaido Big Dippers. “Although we were defeated, the close battle that the younger members of my team experienced in the final match will surely become an asset for their future career,” said Ikezaki. 2015 was a fruitful year for Ikezaki, after achieving a meaningful victory against Australia, the London Paralympic gold medalist, at the Asia-Oceania Championship. “I'm very happy to end the year with a great match,” commented Ikezaki, and added, “to prepare for the Rio Paralympics, I will start working out at the gym again as soon as I return to Hokkaido.”

Stands empty despite thrilling match

4 members of the RIZE including Tomoaki Imai (left) won a prize for their individual performances

AXE (Saitama), who beat the RIZE (Chiba) by 3 points in the third-place match, had given a fine performance in the semi-final match against the Big Dippers the previous day, losing by just 4 points. Masahiro Fukui, the playing manager of AXE explained that their team struggled because their tactics and players had been analyzed by the other teams. “However, it was a valuable experience for the team to learn to play more flexibly on the court. I hope to continue helping the players so that they can improve their skills.”

Although this year's competition gave the impression that the competitive landscape of wheelchair rugby in Japan has become balanced, merely a hundred spectators came out to watch the final match despite being on a Sunday. “The stands are always empty, whether we defeat a powerful country (as in the Asia-Oceania Championship) or become world No.3. We need to keep working hard to earn fans and gain support,” commented Yukinobu Ike, captain of the national wheelchair rugby team. Considering that more than 150 media members had been present at the Asia-Oceania Championship, the athletes could not hide their disappointment about the difference in media attention.

The Japan national wheelchair rugby team is said to have the highest chance of winning a medal at the Rio Paralympics in team sports. Let us all give our warm support to the tenacious wheelchair rugby members.

Shimakawa (center), captain of the BLITZ celebrating the team's victory

The winning team BLITZ is a mix of long-serving and young members

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1
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