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Akita Pref. gov't baseball program pays off as high school reaches Koshien final

A camera placed behind the catcher calculates the number of rotations of a pitched baseball and other data that is recorded by team advisers, right, at Akita Chuo High School, in the prefectural capital city of Akita, on Nov. 18, 2017. (Mainichi)
The players of Akita Prefecture's Kanaashi Agricultural High School enter Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on Aug. 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

AKITA -- Akita Prefectural Kanaashi Agricultural High School will be heading to the final of the 2018 National High School Baseball Championship, or "Koshien," hoping to become the first team from Akita Prefecture, or even from the Tohoku region, to win the championship. In the final, Kanaashi will face Osaka Prefecture's Osaka Toin High School.

Behind the Akita team's journey to become the first squad from the prefecture to make the finals in 103 years when the very first tournament was held lies a prefectural government program. Aimed specifically at strengthening Akita Prefecture's high school baseball teams, the program successfully ended the bitter "winter era," where the prefecture's teams were all defeated in their first games for 13 consecutive years in summer Koshien tournaments.

The majority of high schools in Akita Prefecture, in Japan's northern Tohoku region, are public schools. Crumbling under the pressure from private schools around the country, the teams were eliminated in the first round from 1998 to 2010. The loss was such a "shocking reality check" that the need for countermeasures was raised during Akita Prefectural Assembly discussion. From the 2011 academic year, a program with the goal of getting into the "Koshien best four" began.

At the time, the presence of 63-year-old Takumi Ono, a former chairman of the Akita High School Baseball Federation, was central to the prefecture's efforts. As the coach of Akita High School, he led the team to spring and summer Koshien competitions seven times, and after retiring from coaching in 2002, he had joined the health and physical education department of the prefectural education agency.

Ono and the other members who joined the project committee invited experienced coaches from schools with strong baseball teams, sports science researchers and other experts to become team advisers, stating, "By reaching out to excellent instructors and others from outside of the prefecture with bountiful experience, it will act as various stimuli, and that will lead to raising the overall level of play." The committee had coaches from schools around Akita Prefecture learn techniques such as coaching methods, to bring up the level of quality for the prefecture as a whole. Even now, among the advisers in Akita is Masaharu Maeda, former coach of the amateur Nippon Shinyaku Baseball Team and a live commentator for high school baseball.

In the first summer of the program during the 2011 academic year, Akita Prefectural Noshiro Shogyo High School, now Noshiro Shoyo High School, made it past the first round. In the summer of 2015, Akita Municipal Akita Shogyo High School made it to the final eight. In recent years, focus had been put on pitchers, measuring and analyzing pitches with a top-of-the-line camera, and using the data during practice, along with other new measures. It appears that the active application of scientific methods has finally come to fruition.

Of the current trend in high school baseball, Ono commented, "Teams that win with a powerful batting lineup stand out." Of Kanaashi agricultural high, he added, "They play orthodox baseball by frequently using bunts. Their style might be called 'outdated,' but it's actually the opposite because it is seen as fresh to their opponents, and it has become the team's strength."

"I was putting my hope on the school making it to the final," Ono said of the Koshien decisive game. "But I am honestly surprised. During the Akita Prefecture preliminaries, the team didn't hit a single home run, and there were concerns about the batting lineup. At Koshien, however, each batter's concentration has increased, and I think that has been integral to the team's success."

In fact, in the summer of 1991, when Ono was the coach of Akita high, Kanaashi's opponent, Osaka Toin made its debut at Koshien. In the game between Ono's team and Osaka Toin, Akita lost 3-4 in the 11th inning.

"The current team from Osaka Toin has shown itself to be a strong team, and the players remain calm no matter the situation," Ono said. "I would like Kanaashi to play to the very end without losing concentration."

(Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Akita Bureau)

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