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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Japan Advances to Volleyball Nations League Final for the 1st Time

In a duel with Brazil, the Japan women triumphed in the semifinals to secure a spot against Italy in the volleyball tournament's title match in Bangkok.

Japan displayed resilience and made big plays in big moments against current world No 1 Brazil in the FIVB Women's Volleyball Nations League semifinals on Saturday, June 22 in Bangkok.

Head coach Masayoshi Manabe's team, ranked seventh in the world, booked a spot in Sunday night's tournament final in the Thai capital with a hard-earned 26-24, 20-25, 25-21, 22-25, 15-12 victory.

As a result, Japan will play in the Women's Volleyball Nations League final for the first time. Up next: A Sunday night showdown against Italy in the title match.

The Japan women will earn their first medal in a major international competition since grabbing the silver medal at the 2014 FIVB World Grand Prix.

How did Japan get there?

Japan defeated China 25-21, 25-21, 25-22 in Thursday's quarterfinals to secure a spot against Brazil in the next round. Captain Sarina Koga notched a team-high 22 points and outside hitter Mayu Ishikawa had 21 to lead Japan.

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Japan's Airi Miyabe (center) celebrates a point with her teammates during the FIVB Women's Volleyball Nations League match against Brazil. (VOLLEYBALL WORLD/via SANKEI)

A day later, Yukiko Wada, a dynamic 22-year-old opposite, had a major influence on the outcome against Brazil, finishing with 21 points, including 20 kills. Koga added 18 points, Ishikawa had 16 and middle blocker Airi Miyabe chipped in with 11 points, including four blocks.

Ishikawa sealed the win with a kill in the fifth set. 

For Brazil, Gabriela Gumaraes was the top scorer with 21 points, including 20 attack points.

Captain Koga Reflects on Clash with Brazil and Looks Ahead to the Final

What was going through Koga's mind after Japan found a way to conquer Brazil?

"I'm relieved," she was quoted as saying by Daily Sports. "I was concentrating on my own, but we were able to do it as an organized team."

Koga added, "I respected our opponents as a strong team, but we scored spikes to overcome the wall and attack."

Surprising nobody, the veteran volleyball star admitted she's fired up about facing Italy in the final.

"I don't think you'll get a chance like that [to be the best in the world] in your lifetime," Koga said, according to the sports newspaper, "so I want to enjoy the game tomorrow."

Perspective from a Top Brazilian Volleyball Player

After the grueling back-and-forth semifinal match against Japan, Brazil middle blocker Ana Carolina Da Silva spoke to Volleyball World TV about how the match played out.

"Of course, it's hard to talk now. It's always difficult to play against Japan," Da Silva, commonly referred to as "Carol" to teammates and fans, said in the TV interview. "They defend a lot. We also do, but today I think our counterattack wasn't so good. Neither was our serve."

What else were keys to victory for Japan?

"They put in a lot of speed into their sets and their spikes, so we were struggling a little bit with the right positions," Da Silva said in the interview. "It was a hard game and now it is important to rest, because tomorrow we have another game and we have to be ready to fight again. Of course, it's very frustrating, because we wanted to win the tournament, but Japan did a great job."

Brazil took a 13-match win streak in this year's tournament into its showdown with Japan.

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Outside hitter Mayu Ishikawa in action against Brazil. (VOLLEYBALL WORLD/via SANKEI)

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Focusing on Improvement

After Japan's quarterfinal triumph over China, Miyabe discussed the significance of the experience and how it fit into the team's overall objectives in the Volleyball Nations League.

"We are just focusing on every single game and, hopefully, we keep winning in the tournament," Miyabe told reporters in Bangkok, according to Volleyball World. She added, "We could have played better early on in the game. But we fixed a lot of things towards the end of the game and that's why we did well today."

Tournament Information

The Volleyball Nations League was first held in 2018, and the Japan women appeared in the semifinals for the first time in 2021, placing fourth overall in Ankara. 

Past winners of the tournament: United States (2018, 2019, 2021), Italy (2022) and Turkey (2023). The tourney wasn't held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the first five editions of the Women's Volleyball Nations League, Japan finished 10th, ninth, fourth, seventh and seventh.

The 2024 tournament, which began on May 14, featured 16 national squads. 

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Japan's Yukiko Wada competes at the net against Brazil's Julia Bergmann. (VOLLEYBALL WORLD)

Preparation Time for Volleyball Squads

By all accounts, this tournament in an Olympic year provides an extensive test for the players and teams who have qualified teams as they prepare for the upcoming Olympic tournament. The 12-team women's event in Paris gets underway on July 27.

Head-to-head duels against teams who have similar world rankings helps coaches see how their teams match up. For instance, as of June 10, all four teams that appeared in the Women's Volleyball Nations League semifinals had the following spots in the world rankings: Brazil (second), Poland (third), Italy (fourth) and Japan (sixth).  

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Japan point guard Rui Machida drives to the basket in the second quarter against Australia on June 21 at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center in Sapporo. (KYODO)

Basketball

Japan Women Earn Sweep of Australia in Mitsui Fudosan Cup

The Japan women's national team recorded a pair of triumphs over Australia in the Mitsui Fudosan Cup, a tuneup tournament for the Paris Olympics, on Thursday and Friday, June 20 and 21 in Sapporo.

Japan, ranked ninth in the world and the silver medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, jumped out to a 52-41 halftime lead in the opener at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center and claimed a 96-85 victory over world No 3 Australia.

Veteran forward Evelyn Mawuli came off the bench and scored a team-high 20 points for Japan. Saki Hayashi poured in 15 points and three teammates also scored in double figures. Floor leader Rui Machida, a breakout star at the Tokyo Olympics, dished out six assists to lead Japan's passing attack.

Japan made 14 of 21 2-point shots and finished with 27 assists against 11 turnovers.

Japan power forward Yuki Miyazawa shoots a jumper in the third quarter on June 21. (KYODO)

Amy Atwell led Australia with 21 points.

In the Friday rematch, Japan beat Australia 95-87.

Hayashi sank 5 of 8 3-point attempts and had a team-best 19 points. Mawuli contributed 13 points and once again five Japan players reached double digits in points. Machida and Asami Yoshida chipped in with seven and six assists, respectively.

Australia trailed 50-43 entering the second half.

Marianna Tolo was the Aussies' high scorer with 20 points.

Another Efficient Performance for the Japan Women

Just like on Thursday, Japan had another impressive shooting performance from 2-point range, making 17 of 28 shots.

"Everyone fought together with a common understanding. And as a result, we had great energy and a strong sense of commitment to play Japanese basketball throughout the game, no matter who was on the court," Hayashi said.

Up next: In preparation for the Paris Games, Japan is set to play New Zealand on July 4 and 6 at Tokyo's Ariake Arena.

Japan guard Keisei Tominaga shoots a layup in the first quarter against Australia on June 22 in Sapporo. (KYODO)

Australia Edges Japan in Men's Exhibition Match

The Japan men's national team built a 27-15 lead by the end of the first quarter against Australia on Saturday afternoon, June 22, but it slipped away.

Australia rallied for a 90-89 victory in the first of two Nippon Life Cup matches in Sapporo.

The teams meet again in the pre-Olympic tourney on Sunday at the Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.

Sam Froling paced Australia with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

World No 5 Australia took an 89-86 on a Mitch Norton 3-pointer with 15 seconds to play. And teammate Reyne Smith nailed a free throw with 3.2 seconds left to extend the lead to four.

Japan guard Yuki Togashi, who finished with 16 points and four assists off the bench, then buried a half-court shot to beat the buzzer and account for the final score.

Former University of Nebraska guard Keisei Tominaga led Japan with 18 points and Josh Hawkinson scored 15. After a hot start from the 3-point arc in the opening quarter, coach Tom Hovasse's club struggled to connect from long range, making 12 of 35 3-pointers overall.

Australia outrebounded 26th-ranked Japan 47-32.

The teams met at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup, with Australia collecting a 109-89 win at Okinawa Arena.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Shota Imanaga faces a New York Mets batter during the first inning at Wrigley Field on June 21. (David Banks/USA TODAY SPORT)

Baseball

Imanaga Adopts a Nickname to Order Coffee

In his first MLB season, Chicago Cubs left-hander Shota Imanaga is getting acclimated to American culture. He's also embraced having an American nickname, according to the latest edition of the "Beyond the Box Score" newsletter.

Imanaga has a new nameplate on his locker. It reads "Mike Tominaga II," the newsletter reported.

But why?

" 'Mike' is the Japanese ace's chosen moniker at Starbucks — because he doesn't have to spell it for the barista who writes it on his coffee cup," read a small item in the newsletter, adding that the "II" is included on his nameplate for "no particular reason; it just sounds cool."

Longtime MLB reporters and broadcasters are among the sources contributing news, notes and anecdotes to Bill Arnold's long-running newsletter.

Rough Outing for Imanaga Against the Cubs

Imanaga (7-2) had his worst outing of the season on Friday, June 21, giving up 10 runs and 11 hits in the Cubs' 11-1 pummeling at the hands of the Mets at Wrigley Field.

It was Imanaga's second start against the Mets, having previously faced New York on May 1.

After pitching three-plus innings on Friday, Imanaga assessed his performance.

"I felt their lineup, when I faced them today, they were different," Imanaga said through an interpreter, according to MLB.com. "And then how I felt against them the previous time and today, it was a little different. So, I definitely felt like they made an adjustment."

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Thunder Slugger Sasaki Homers in Victory Over Black Bears

Trenton Thunder first baseman Rintaro Sasaki bashed a solo home run to right field in the second inning of an MLB Draft League game against the West Virginia Black Bears on Friday, June 21. The visiting Thunder went on to win 4-3.

With no outs, Sasaki walloped a 2-2 fastball, sending it flying 380 feet and over the right-field fence at Monongalia County Ballpark in Granville, West Virginia. 

The Iwate Prefecture native, who is set to make his high-profile debut at Stanford University in the 2025 college baseball season, is batting .233 with two homers and eight RBIs in nine games. He made his MLB Draft League debut on June 11.

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Sakura Torii holds the winner's trophy after wrapping up a victory in the Japan Women's Amateur Championship on June 14 in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture. (KYODO)

Golf

Teenager Torii Captures Japan Women's Amateur Championship Title

Sakura Torii secured a runaway victory in the 65th Japan Women's Amateur Championship on June 14 at Chiba Prefecture's Abiko Golf Club.

Torii, 17, was the lone golfer in the tournament to shoot under 70 in all four rounds. She finished at 14-under 274 (69-68-68-69), earning a five-stroke win over Mamika Shinchi.

Entering the tourney, Torii was 484th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking among women. With the win, she vaulted to 65th.

Torii acknowledged she was thrilled with the outcome at Abiko Golf Club.

"The Japan Women's Amateur is the biggest title for amateurs," Torii told reporters after the tournament concluded. "I never thought I would be able to win, so I can only say that I'm happy."

Torii has earned a berth in the Japan Women's Open Golf Championship, which is scheduled for September 26-29 at Ohtone Country Club in Bando, Ibaraki Prefecture. Erika Hara is the defending champion.

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American 5,000-meter final winner Bob Schul (center) salutes the crowd before receiving his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on October 18, 1964, at National Stadium. (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Track and Field

1964 Olympic 5,000-Meter Champion Schul Dies at 86

Tokyo Olympian Bob Schul, the only American runner, male or female, to win Olympic gold in the 5,000 meters, passed away on June 16 in Middletown, Ohio. He was 86.

On October 18, 1964, Schul won the 5,000-meter final in 13 minutes, 48.8 seconds at National Stadium, and the runner-up, German Harald Norpoth, was clocked in 13:49.6. (Watch the final three laps of the Olympic final on YouTube.)

With 200 meters remaining in the race, which was held two days after the qualifying heats, Schul was in third place, according to the British publication Athletics Weekly's event report. In his account of the race, Mel Watman described Schul's extraordinary effort to claim the title, noting that the American was "running at a devilish tempo."

Indeed, Schul's effort paid off in a big way, as he passed several others in the latter stages of the race. At the 3,000-meter mark, he was in sixth place and nearly 3 seconds off the pace.

"His thrilling long sprint finish demolished a superlative field that included some of the world's most feared kickers," Runner's World noted in its obituary of Schul.

Australian great Ron Clarke and Kenyan legend Kipchoge "Kip" Keino were among the entrants in the Tokyo race.

A 1991 inductee into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, Schul battled severe asthma as a child before becoming a world-class athlete.

Schul co-authored In the Long Run, his autobiography published in 2000, with Laura Rentz Krause.

Quote of the Week

"Today's score is a bit disappointing, especially after I started like a rocket. But I had some lucky moments, too. Things were quite dramatic throughout the 18 holes."

LPGA Tour golfer Hinako Shibuno on her 2-under 70 performance in the second round of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship on Friday, June 21 at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington, Kyodo News reported. 


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven

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