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Okinawa Hurricanes Crowned Japan Champions for the Third Time in a Row at the Japan Championships!

The Mitsui Fudosan Wheelchair Rugby Japan Championships <20th Anniversary Tournament> was held from December 14-16. This was an incredible year for Japan wheelchair rugby, with the Japan national team crowned world champions for the first time at the GIO 2018 IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in August. The Japan Championships, which was to finish off this amazing year, saw approximately 2,300 spectators on its last day, due to efforts to bolster the audience for these games—something that they had struggled to do in the past. These spectators cheered loud as the finals game played out in exhilarating fashion—a fitting way to determine the wheelchair rugby Japan champion.

Kochi-Osaka Joint Team Advances to the Finals for the First Time

In the end, it was Freedom (Kochi), home to Yukinobu Ike, Captain of the Japan national team, that made it into the finals, for their first time ever. This year, to make up for their lack of players, they had competed as a joint team with HEAT (Osaka), the only wheelchair rugby team in the Kansai region. “All of the players have grown so much this past year—we fought knowing that there was a chance we could win,” said Ike about his team. And indeed, Freedom obliterated the Hokkaido Big Dippers and BLITZ in the preliminaries, and claimed victory over RIZE CHIBA (Chiba), 50-44, in the semi-finals, making their way into the finals.

An Exhilarating Battle for the Japan Champion Title

The first to score a point was the Okinawa Hurricanes. Shin Nakazato (2.5) and Lewis kept as far away from each other as possible—Nakazato with his trademark mobility—to dodge Freedom’s defense and rack up the points.

Freedom, on the other hand, had more players on hand than the Okinawa Hurricanes. Though for a bit the points went back and forth, it wasn’t long in the game before Freedom’s first line, Ike and Yu Nagayasu (2.5)—the team’s World Championships gold medal members—together with up-and-coming player Tomoshige Kabetani (2.0), stole the lead from the Okinawa Hurricanes. Freedom’s strategy was to go into the second half of the game while switching up the members on the court.

Freedom’s Yukinobu Ike, who is also Captain of the Japan national team

Freedom, however, seemed to be hit by a special case of the nerves, up there in the finals for the first time. Small mistakes—going past the try line before catching the ball, and more—brought them down, preventing the team from scoring points and getting into a good rhythm.

A good example was one incident at the very end of the first period. The score was tied and Freedom was banking on their last try1. Nagayasu was in a good spot in front of the try line, but Kabetani, who had received the ball from Ike, decided not to pass the ball and instead beeline for the try line himself. He was milliseconds late, and Freedom was unable to win the lead from the Okinawa Hurricanes.

“Freedom has a lot of strong-willed players, so I was trying to be a good buffer for them,” said Tomoshige Kabetani (left)

Kabetani, who belongs in sport class 2.0, said about his decision in that moment, “I knew they were gonna put the pressure on Ike and Nagayasu. My thinking was that I couldn’t let them just take on all the pressure during the game—that at some points, I had to go for it myself. But because I wanted the opponent to see this during the first period, I ended up being overeager about it.”

“It was an intense game, but I was able to keep a level head,” said Matt Lewis

The Okinawa Hurricanes, having defended their goal line, proceeded to shut down Freedom’s pathways with an intense defense, recover balls that had gone loose, and more—plays that showed a powerful drive to win that third consecutive victory. And so the first half came to an end, with the Okinawa Hurricanes in a two-point lead over Freedom.

Nakazato, a long-time wheelchair rugby player who has competed in four Paralympics, and whose aggressive plays made him stand out on the court, said about this game, “I didn’t want people to say that we were good because of Lewis. And I definitely didn’t wanna lose to Freedom, not with their world champions Ike and Nagayasu. I actually failed to qualify for the team that competed in the world championships, and this was the only time in the Japan Championships where I could make my appeal to Coach Kevin Orr of the Japan national team [who was watching on the sidelines] to get me back on the team.”

In this way, the finals game was also a battleground for all kinds of thoughts.

A Dramatic End

Freedom, however, was not about to take this lying down. Though they went into the fourth period two points behind, Ike managed to drive Lewis, who was moving the ball forward, to the back court and get a turnover, changing the tide of battle. The game once again reverted to an intense back-and-forth between offense-defense, as the crowd watched, rapt with attention.

Shin Nakazato moved freely around the court, making his appeal for the Japan national team

The next shift in the tides only came in the last minute of the game. Freedom, having taken a time out to get themselves back together, managed through denial defense2 and tackles to incite a foul by the Okinawa Hurricanes, and get the game to 47-47 with only ten seconds on the clock. But it was what came after that was truly dramatic. Nakazato, upon receiving a ball from long-time low-pointer Shunsuke Kawano (1.5), went straight for the goal. Seeing this, Ike went all in for a desperate tackle, that would knock Nakazato outside of the try posts. Nakazato’s wheelchair, however, passed the try line right as the signal rang for the end of the game. The score—48-47. The Okinawa Hurricanes had escaped the pursuit of Freedom and claimed victory yet again. Nakazato threw his right arm up in the air, as if announcing the team’s third consecutive championship title to the watching crowd.

Members of the Okinawa Hurricanes celebrating their third consecutive championship title

The Okinawa Hurricanes had only five members; the staff, who rode wheelchairs to help them train, also played a part in the team’s consecutive title

In the third-place playoffs, BLITZ, home to Shinichi Shimakawa (3.0) of the World Championships Japan national team, claimed victory over the local RIZE CHIBA (Chiba) 54-45. The MVP was Matt Lewis, who led the Okinawa Hurricanes to their third consecutive championship title. And the Rookie Award was given to 16-year old Katsuya Hashimoto (3.5) of the TOHOKU STORMERS (Tohoku), a team that was established two years ago.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

* This tournament is eligible for “Ameagari no Step” (parasport charity song) donation funds

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