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【Sitting Volleyball】 [19th Japan Sitting Volleyball Championship]

On the 12th and 13th, the annual Japan Sitting Volleyball Championship held in December each year took place at the Kobe Oji Sports Center. In the men's division, 17 teams competed in four pools of four to five teams on Day 1, and played off to determine the winner on Day 2. In the women's division, 11 teams competed in 3 pools to advance to the Day 2 finals.

Despite the physical strain of competing in up to seven games over the two-days, the 250 registered athletes of the Japan Para-Volleyball Association (of which a third are able-bodied athletes) never lost their smile, and maintained excellent teamwork from beginning to end.

As part of an initiative to foster interaction between Japan and Korea, a men's sitting volleyball team from Goyang took part in this year's competition. The crowd cheered as the Koreans displayed a high-level performance, befitting of Japan's most prestigious competition.

Tokyo Planets Onnagumi wins in straight sets in the women's finals

In the women's division, the Tokyo Planets Onnagumi and Hyogo LSC went head on in the final match. Many members of the Tokyo Planets Onnagumi are also members of the national team. After a hard-fought match, the Tokyoites claimed their third victory after 9 years, 2-0.

In the quarter-finals, the Tokyo Planets Onnagumi struggled against the Kyoto Otabezu Hanako after a full set. Shiori Ogata, London Paralympian and member of the Tokyo team, reflected on the tournament as follows. “Nothing went right in the quarter-final round, but we managed to move on and play our game in the semi-finals and finals.” In the final match, Ogata gained points for her team by drilling the ball into the opposing team's weak defense spots.

At the same time, Hyogo LSC's performance was also one to be proud of, despite their defeat. The team tenaciously fought back against their fierce opponent, while 2014 Asian Para Games member Sachie Awano won serve points for her team. However, this year's Tokyoites were unstoppable. Despite the Hyogo LSC's defeat, the team's coach, Kiyotaka Kawaguchi, praised the members for their efforts, and consoled them that good teamwork is more important than winning. “Everyone was smiling on the court, and the team spirit was great,” said Kawaguchi after the game.

The MVP of this year's championship was 14-year-old Mika Hada of the winning team, the Tokyo Planets Onnagumi. Hada only started competing since April, and this was her first victory as well as her first competition. “Everything feels surreal to me. None of this would have been possible without my team,” said the rising star champion. Although she still lacks in physical power, Hada is already playing on the national team due to her height of 161cm and experience as a volleyball player. Much attention is drawn to Hada for her performance at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. “Sitting volleyball is much more difficult than standing volleyball because I cannot use my legs. I'm still not very good at digging the ball, but I hope to improve my serve to contribute to my team”, Hada said.

Kyoto Otabezu Taro defeats rival team

In the men's division, the Kyoto Otabezu Taro picked up their fifth victory after beating the defending champion, Chiba Pirates 2-0. The Taros were particularly pleased as they had been defeated by the Pirates in last year's final match. “While the Chiba Pirates were very good at sustaining a rally, we maintained a high level of focus and concentrated on every play. As a result, we were able to avenge last year's defeat,” said the team's captain, Nobuyuki Isori.

“Our opponent made no errors, unlike us.” Masahiko Kato of the Chiba Pirates calmly reflected on the reason for his team's defeat. “Once you become a champion, I guess everyone analyzes your play style and tactics, so defending your title becomes nearly impossible” said Kato with a tone of regret.

Masahiko Kato, aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics as a national team member

Kato is a long-serving player who competed in the Sydney and Athens Paralympics, and returned to the national team this May. "I don't want people to think that the Japanese national sitting volleyball team is weak. I hope my team mates and I can put on a performance at the Tokyo Paralympics that we can be proud of. I also hope that I can help train and develop the skills of the younger members,” said Kato.

A member from the Japan Amputee Soccer Association took part in this year's competition. Yoshihiro Iikura of the Osaka Attackers Goromaru had attended an event that had been organized by the JPC in August to seek potential athletes to participate in the Paralympics. It was there that Iikura was exposed to sitting volleyball for the first time. “I was told that being tall is an advantage in sitting volleyball,” said the 177-cm tall footballer. This was his first experience participating in a sitting volleyball competition. “I hope to improve my skills so that I can start to block attacks and spikes,” said Iikura.

Journey to Rio, then comes Tokyo

Soul48 Damashii, who was defeated by the Hyogo LSC in the first round of the final tournament, had entered in this year's competition as an all-women's team for the first time. “It was disappointing to lose, but it was fun to compete as an all-women's team”, commented Michiyo Nishiie, who had lead her team with her powerful attacks.。

Nishiie is also the captain of the women's national sitting volleyball team. In fact, there were many national team members amongst the participants in this year's competition. “I didn't get a chance to observe all of the teams, but I felt that skills are improving at an individual level,” said Nishiie.

Intercontinental 2016, the last qualifying event for the Rio Paralympics, will be held in China next spring. “To win a spot in the Paralympics, we will need to defeat the European teams that have a physical advantage over us,” said Nishiie. “We must improve our performance from now up to the competition, and do everything it takes to qualify for Rio.” The event will be the final opportunity for one team to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. “It will be a tough challenge for Japan, but we simply must qualify in order to raise awareness for the sport,” said Nishiie. Let the Japanese national team play their best, in hopes that their journey will continue on to Rio and Tokyo.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by AFLO SPORT
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