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Japan Para Goalball Championships: Japan Women’s Team Tries Their Hand in Tokyo 2020 Official Venue

The atmosphere in a goalball venue can seem strange at first—absolute silence during the plays, the audience exploding into cheers when a score is made. And it was just this kind of atmosphere that the top women’s goalball athletes found themselves in, at the Makuhari Event Hall, the official venue for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

The Japan Para Goalball Championships was held at the Makuhari Event Hall from September 28-29, featuring two overseas teams—Brazil, ranked 3rd in the world, and the U.S., ranked 5th. Going up against these teams was Japan, divided into teams A and B for the purposes of the tournament.

The Japan A team was made up of members including long-timer Masae Komiya (second from the right) and Rieko Takahashi (fourth from the right)

The Fruits of Japan’s Labors in Strengthening Ball Control

Both the Brazil and U.S. teams have strong offenses. Japan, on the other hand, has generally been known for its defense skills—which is why, in preparation for this tournament, the team had undergone a nine-day training camp in August in order to strengthen their offense, with an emphasis on “slow” control of the ball.

Japan A—comprised of almost exactly the same members as the Japan national team—showed off the fruits of their labor in the preliminaries, beating Brazil 4-2 and the U.S. 4-1, tying with Japan B but still coming out in 1st place. Most striking of all was their victory against the U.S. team, which had beaten Brazil and Japan B without losing any points. Though the U.S. team won the first point, Japan A was able to fight back and win four points, earning a comeback victory that bodes well for their victory in the tournament itself.

Japan A: “Tricky Offense” Works Wonders, But Issues with Losing Points

Amanda Dennis, the center player for the U.S., made her presence known in the tournament

The finals match found Japan A going up against the very same U.S. team. With both teams highly skilled in defense and not budging an inch, the match became a close and very tense one. The U.S. offense was notably complex, with the wing players on both sides frequently switching positions while throwing the ball straight and cross-court, and even the center player—the main defensive player—throwing as well. In response, Japan A called frequently out to each other, solidifying their defenses. Japan’s defense is built on “searching,” on the act of listening carefully to the sound of the ball and the other team’s footsteps, and figuring out where they stand on the court. They called out “Right!” “Passing [the ball]!” as they deciphered their opponents’ whereabouts and actions, and shared information about where the ball was coming in using numbers—specifically, numbers from 0-9 that they’d specified for each 9m width of the goal. “3,” for example, was one 9m part of the goal, and “5.5” another.

An effective strategy is not just blocking the opponents’ balls, but catching it and moving quickly into a counterattack. Japan especially is very quick in this turnaround, with their goal to score a point before the person who threw the ball has a chance to return to their defensive position. The U.S. team, however, was also very fast, and wouldn’t let them score very easily. Particularly prominent was U.S. player Amanda Dennis, who—despite being the central defensive player—was capable of throwing very rapid shots on the sides of the court.

The Japan team worked to confuse their opponents by having the non-ball throwers make footsteps as well

Even with all of this, Japan A was able to eke out some very close encounters in what the U.S. team later praised as the “world’s trickiest offensive strategy.” This included strategies for movement, like clapping their hands lightly together or tapping on the ground to disguise their movements, or shots that involve a non-ball thrower pretending to move into a shot (a feint)—all creative efforts to score points amidst disadvantages in terms of physical size and power. Both sides refused to budge in this incredible performance of mental acuity and fortitude, cleverly using high-speed grounders (balls that are low to the ground) and bounce balls, getting their opponents used to certain shots that could go through their defenses, and instead making a shot that goes in right near the goalposts.

It was about two minutes into the second half that this deadlock finally broke, when U.S. wing player Lisa Czechowski made a strong shot that hit Japan A center Rieko Takahashi, altering course and rolling into the goal. About three minutes later, Haruka Wakasugi, who had entered the game in the second half, made a cross-court shot that went past the U.S. team center, taking the match back to the drawing board. Immediately afterwards, however, a strong bounce ball from none other than Czechowski managed—despite hitting Takahashi’s foot and losing some momentum—to make it into the Japan A goal.

21-year old Takahashi, who played as center for Japan A

Even after, the U.S. team continued to lob powerful shots, focused mostly in the space between Takahashi and Komiya. In the face of all of this, Japan managed to hold steady and not lose any points. And right when time seemed to be running out, Japan A got Eiko Kakehata—who’d scored three points in this tournament—to enter the fray. Even after working desperately to score more points, however, they were not able to get past the U.S. team’s now solidified defenses, led by the ever quick-moving Dennis.

Eiko Kakehata did very well in this tournament as a point-getter

Japan B: Center Urata Makes an Appeal for Reinstatement

Japan B’s Akiko Adachi works to be reinstated in the Japan national team as a center with offensive capabilities

The 3rd place playoffs were between the Japan B and Brazil teams. Seeing how these two teams had also tied at 2-2 during the preliminaries, expectations were high for a Japan B victory. These expectations were dampened somewhat in the beginning of the second half, when Japan B lost a point to a penalty throw. Although center Rie Urata, with her quick reflexes, was able to make some amazing saves, they were not able to suppress Brazil’s offense—which involved a unique but powerful shot where the players would turn around and throw the ball from between their legs—and they lost another point. The Japan B team fell 0-3, and the tournament ended with the two Japan teams in 2nd and 4th place.

Norika Hagiwara played on Japan B in order to increase her play chances; though she wasn’t able to score any points, she was able to gain a lot of experience

After the tournament, Head Coach Kyoichi Ichikawa of the Japan national team said, “It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to win at the end, but we were able to play some powerhouse teams in the same venue as Tokyo 2020, and we were able to experience how the ball would move and how sounds would echo in courts of this material.” Because Takahashi of Japan A hadn’t been able to prevent the opponent from scoring, he hinted also that they were reconsidering the center for the Japan national team.

The players themselves seemed to have felt progress with regards to their control of the ball, which is what they have been focusing on in their training. Kakehata, who scored three points in this tournament—not including penalty throws—also commented, “We’re doing well with what we’ve been working on in our training camps.” Since last year, the Japan national team has also been conducting more detailed informational analysis. “It went almost completely according to our analyses. This is very good news for us as we head into the real thing,” said long-timer Masae Komiya, about how their performance in this tournament reflects on Tokyo 2020.

Rie Urata, playing on a court made with the same material that will be used for the Tokyo Paralympic Games

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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