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[ODDS and EVENS] Yuki Ishikawa Fills a Vital Role for Italian Club Allianz Milano

Volleyball player Yuki Ishikawa is making notable contributions in Italy's SuperLega, and he hopes to do the same for the Japan men's national team in Paris.

As the intensity of the volleyball competition heats up during Italy's ongoing SuperLega Credem Banca playoffs, Allianz Milano outside hitter Yuki Ishikawa is an omnipresent source of energy for his team.

Ishikawa provides powerful spikes and serves, volleyball smarts and valuable leadership, too.

In Milano's best-of-five semifinal series against Sir Susa Vim Perugia, for example, the 28-year-old Aichi Prefecture native was second on the team in points (19, including 18 kills) in a five-set home win (25-27, 25-21, 21-25, 27-25, 20-18) on Wednesday, April 3.

After the series-tying victory for Ishikawa and his teammates, the competition shifts to Perugia's Pala Barton. The third match is set for Sunday, April 7, followed by the fourth contest on April 11 at Allianz Cloud Arena in Milan.

Belgian rising star Ferre Reggers had a match-high 31 points for Milano. He reacted to the tough competition that lasted 2 hours and 51 minutes after his starring role in the team's triumph.

"It's never going to be easy against Perugia," Reggers remarked, according to the SuperLega website. "But we played with a lot of passion and the fans created a great atmosphere. I'm happy because we showed again that we can do anything. We can be down 2-0 but we'll fight until the end, and it's never over before the final point."

Perugia won the series-opening match at home in four sets (25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 25-22) on April 1.

Ishikawa Analyzes Milano's Series-Opening Loss

Afterward, Ishikawa admitted in an interview published on the Japanese-language sports website The Digest that Milano needed to make on-the-go adjustments, noting its early struggles.

"I knew they had a good serve," Ishikawa said of Perugia, "so I tried to respond to that."

He then said, "I was aware of how to start the match, but that part was not so good in the first set. … Our reception and service were not working well."

But to their credit, Ishikawa and his teammates made Perugia scratch and claw for every point throughout the grueling match.

"From the third set onward, I think we started to function a little better. But the points where we were taken out in the second half of the set were all on their serve," Ishikawa said, according to The Digest before adding, "so we want to fix that."

It appears that trial-and-error moments in the opening match, even if they looked like setbacks in real time, proved helpful for Milano in the second match a few days later.

In particular, because the coaching staff, led by Roberto Piazza had abundant evidence about vital aspects of the opening match. And then the players were reminded of key adjustments to make for the second match and beyond in the series.

Yuki Ishikawa
Allianz Milano players, including Yuki Ishikawa (right), congratulate one another on March 27. (SuperLega)

Back-to-Back Appearances in Italy's Playoff Semifinals

In the 2022-23 Italian campaign, Milano advanced to the third-place match after being eliminated in the playoff semifinals. Ishikawa's team then dropped this match in straight sets to Gas Sales Bluenergy Piacenza.

On Wednesday, March 27, Milano booked a trip to the semifinals again, eliminating Piacenza in the decisive fifth match, 25-21, 25-21, 25-22.

"We won well and advanced to the semifinals, so I'm happy to be on the same stage as last year," Ishikawa was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon after the match.

Ishikawa, a sports celebrity in his homeland, became the first Japanese to play in the SuperLega in 2014, previously known as Serie A or the Italian Volleyball League. He described the series finale against Piacenza as a "very good game with everyone fulfilling their role as a team."

To reach the semifinals, Milano, indeed, faced a considerable challenge in getting past third-seeded Piacenza.

For example, in the series opener on March 6, sixth-seeded Milano twice trailed by a set but rallied for the five-set win, 20-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-22, 15-10.

Ishikawa was instrumental in helping Allianz Milano keep it close throughout the match. 

For both teams, every point was significant, and Ishikawa registered three aces among his 17 points on the night. He trailed 20-year-old dynamo Ferre's team-high total by one point.

"We were very good at always staying close in the match," Milano libero Damiano Catania was quoted as saying by Volleyball World. "They are a great team and the series will probably be long. We did well to take the 1-0 lead. [And] we won thanks to resilience in the most difficult moment, covering many balls."

Yuki Ishikawa
Japan national team player Yuki Ishikawa spikes the ball in a FIVB Olympic volleyball qualifier against Slovenia in Tokyo on October 7, 2023. (©SANKEI)

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Preparing for the Paris Olympics

Taking place just a few months before the 2024 Paris Olympics open on July 26, the SuperLega playoffs are giving Ishikawa and other players an important test of their physical and mental fitness.

Allianz Miano's current goal is to capture the SuperLega title in April.

Meanwhile, the next few months will be a busy time for the Japan national team as it gets ready for the upcoming 2024 FIVB Volleyball Men's Nations League

Japan is set to appear in the preliminary phase of the tournament in Rio de Janeiro, opening play against Argentina on May 21. For head coach Philippe Blain's squad, matches against Serbia, Cuba and Italy are also on the docket in Brazil.

Japan's preliminary phase schedule shifts to Fukuoka, where it will host an eight-team pool from June 4-9 and face Iran, Poland, Germany and Slovenia. Following its stay in Fukuoka, Japan heads to Manila (June 18-23) to meet Canada, the Netherlands, France and the United States, seeking a spot in the VNL Finals in Lodz, Poland, in late June.

At a press conference on March 19, Blain outlined Japan's ambitious goals for the Paris Games and also reflected on the team qualifying to play in the Olympics.

"[For Japan], 2023 was a special year, both in terms of results and the quality of play," Blain said, according to Sports Nippon. "We achieved our goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games through the Paris Olympics qualifiers."

Looking ahead, he added, Japan is determined to achieve success in France.

"This dream has yet to end," Blain commented. "Winning a medal at the Olympics will be the most beautiful page in the history of [Japan men's volleyball], both as an individual and as a representative of Japan."

Yuki Ishikawa
Yuki Ishikawa in an October 2023 file photo. (©SANKEI)

Ishikawa Targeting a Medal in France

To achieve an ambitious goal at the 2024 Olympics, it's clear that Ishikawa will need to continue to play a starring role for Japan this summer, with Ran Takahashi, Masahiro Sekita and other returning national team standouts helping set the tone.

Appointed as national team captain weeks before the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, where the Japan men finished seventh among 12 teams, Ishikawa remains a high-profile motivational figure for the squad. His words carry weight.

Playing his entire pro career to date in Italy, with elite-level pro competition, has cemented his gravitas as a national team leader.

Looking back on Japan's performance at the 2023 Volleyball Nations League at which it qualified for the Paris Olympics, Ishikawa said in January: "We were able to prove our strength."

Added Ishikawa, according to The Sankei Shimbun, "We are now a team that can aim for a medal at the Paris Olympics."


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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