The 5-time Reigning Japanese Champion Visits America's Legendary Lax City

By Nelson Coffin

Saying that the Keio University lacrosse team came to play on its recent trip to the U.S. is not just a figure of speech and quite an understatement. The Japanese national champs really did come to play. And play. And play some more. It was a workingman's vacation for the Keio kids, who had a game scheduled every day they were in the States and twice on at least one occasion. That's the day the Tokyo-based school tied a Navy "B" squad and a couple of hours later staged a second-half rally to stay reasonably competitive in a 12-5 loss to UMBC. "I'm very proud of the way they played," said UMBC Coach Don Zimmerman, who first visited the Land of the Rising Sun in 1987 to hold a clinic and has been back six times since. "The improvement they've made since we went there the first time has been incredible."

UMBC's Don Zimmerman with JLA's Yusuke Sasaki

Zimmerman's Retrievers jumped out to a 7-0 lead under the lights at UMBC Stadium and then held on during a 16-minute scoreless stretch against a team that finally adjusted to the pace of encountering a Division I rival for the first time. Keio didn't score until Naoki Oyoshi broke through on a clever hidden-ball trick with 13:55 left in the first half (international rules stipulate 20-minute running quarters). Oyoshi also notched the 5-time Japanese Champions' second and third goals of the contest, while Nobuyuki Suzuki and Kensuke Kimura were the other goal scorers.

The Retrievers were paced by Brian Johnson, who totaled three goals and two assists. The attackman from Eastern Tech in Baltimore County was impressed with Keio's stylish stickwork and speed. "They finally got used to what we were doing," said Johnson, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament prior to his senior year in high school and still sports a brace on the injured knee. "And they were quick. They moved so well off the ball and could get open. But as far as size goes, we had it." UMBC used that hefty advantage to corral almost every faceoff and win the ground ball war as well.

Baltimore based lacrosse retailer Bacharach played a pivotal role in making the trip so successful. An old friend of owner Chris Hutchins, with connections to the JLA contacted him earlier in the year to see if Bacharach could help schedule some games, referees and generally help the team work out some logistics, according to Bacharach manager Hunter Francis. Francis and Hutchins booked them solid much to the team's delight. The schedule was an eclectic mix of talent levels which suited the Japanese team's goal of getting as much experience as possible on the trip. Games included indoor and outdoor games against Team Toyota, a top Baltimore high school team, a community college team, a Division 3 team, a Division I JV, the UMBC varsity, RebelWear's club team and then the finale this Saturday, September 28th against the Crease Monkeys. The Crease Monkeys contest is to be held at UMBC at 5:00 and is open to the public. A post party is planned for PJ's in Baltimore after the game. Bacharach also hosted a reception for the Keio students and friends at the Bacharach store in Towson on Wednesday.

Not every outing in America was as tough for Keio as the UMBC contest. A 9-8 loss to Goucher came in overtime and the Japanese visitors buried St. Paul's School, 24-2 and edged the Toyota club team, 11-8 outside while dropping the indoor game 17-12. Keio topped Harford Community college at Homewood 13-4 on Friday. The busy week opened with a scrimmage against Johns Hopkins and a clinic by JHU coaches and Major League Lacrosse Offensive Player of the Year Mark Millon of the champion Baltimore Bayhawks.

"We've had a very good experience here," said Keio Coach Yusuke Sasaki, a lacrosse manager when he attended Johns Hopkins in the late 1980s while Zimmerman was the coach. "We were a little tired after playing Navy, but this game was special for us because Don Zimmereman is a special friend of Japanese lacrosse." Besides providing a familiar face and a friendly smile, Zimmerman also posed the biggest obstacle for Keio. His UMBC team was primed for a battle and dominated the early going with its physical play. "At first, they put the pressure right on us and we couldn't get the pace," said Keio attackman Akihiro Okamato in fluent English. "We took a timeout and then we calmed down. They were bigger but I think we were quicker. Tonight's the best game we played." Size was an issue and will probably continue to be for Asian squads evenwhile making great strides in terms of stick skills. "I think they see lacrosse as a truly American sport," said Zimmerman. "The motto of the Japanese Lacrosse Association is 'Lacrosee makes friends.' And I think that's what they want to do."

Photos by John Strohsacker and E-Lax Staff

Yusuke Sasaki with E-Lacross's Nelson Coffin


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