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Game day has highs and lows

I opened my eyes as my host family came in at 10 a.m. to wake me this morning. I had a sense of anticipation and hint of nervousness running through my mind. It occurred to me, &

This is it. It&

s game day!&

Normally I wake up slowly; it takes a few minutes. Today I woke up quickly and was wide awake in minutes. I started running plays forward and backward through my mind as I got out of bed and walked downstairs for breakfast.

While having breakfast, we decided that it would be better to drive to the hotel today for the pregame meal. That was more comfortable for us than going on the trains. We learned exactly how much more efficient the train system is over the toll highways and overcrowded city streets. It took longer than the trains would have, but we felt more of a sense of control.

When Josh Hogelund and I met the team at the Oriental Hotel Shin-Kobe, things got better. When I started seeing the other players, I became more comfortable. Familiar faces &

my teammates, the guys I came here with to play the Japanese All-Stars. All week long the focus was on embracing the culture &

now it was game time. Time to get ready.

We ate at the Terrace restaurant that one of the Japanese coaches had suggested. It was set up as a buffet and the food reminded us of home: pasta, tacos, sweet and sour pork, a coconut chicken dish and fried rice; a beautiful blend of American, Mexican and Asian cuisine. Just what appealed to our tastes after five days of deviation from our normal diet.

After eating, the coaches divided us into defensive groups: defensive backs with coach (Tito) Soriano; linebackers with coach Dave Kitchell; and defensive linemen with coach (Matt) Williams. After reviewing defensive plays, we changed to offensive groups with a mix of the same coaches and reviewed our offensive strategies.

After our group meetings, (head) coach (Charlie) Hall took the floor. Everyone was interested in what he would have to say at our first pregame team meal. All eyes and ears were on him as he told us about the situation we are in:

&

We have spent a week with our host families, but that doesn&

t mean that they are now going to suddenly take it easy on us. They still want to beat you and will not give an inch. Pride is a huge part of their culture. Missed assignments and misalignments will hurt us more than mismatches, so let&

s get the job done, and be smart, intelligent football players.&

He continued with more motivational messages and then we broke out once again into some prep drills. This time in a restaurant. One in particular is the clap drill in which we line up in tight formations. We set up chairs as defenders. Our QB goes through the snap count, and on the snap we &

clap&

once and then point to our assignments. More repetition to drill it into us.

After going through the drills we all were permitted to spend time preparing ourselves however we liked, as long as it was not something that disturbed others. No joking or fooling around, no loud music, although personal players were permitted. It was to be like church or library quiet &

the idea was to be focused and prep ourselves for the mental side of the game.

At — p.m. we boarded the bus to head to Oji Stadium to suit up. We took our time getting dressed. I think a lot of us were soaking up the moment and working off some of our nervous energy. This was our first game and we knew that the (Japan) all-stars had eight to nine games under their belt in their spring/summer season. They have two seasons a year, so they also play a fall/winter schedule. Japanese athletes focus upon a single sport when they enter high school, so it helps them to become pretty good. I think we had that in the back of our minds as we prepared.

Coach Hall had a last-minute talk with us as we prepared to go onto the field for our pregame warm-ups. We looked better there than we had for most of the practices. We wanted to show our best.

The stadium started filling up as we watched fans file in for the game. We knew most of them were there for the all-stars, except for the boosters and some of the people we had met on the bullet train. As we ran back into the locker room, as we usually do before kickoff, I could see my folks and the rest of the parents sitting next to the press box. I found out later that some of the Japanese league officials sitting with them were rooting for us. These are some pretty neat people.

We ran back onto the field through several cheerleading squads that had been picked to represent various schools in the area. We lined up with the all-stars for the playing of our national anthems. You could feel the emotion in the air. Then the team captains were taken to midfield for the coin toss. Sam Littleton, Alex Lawniczak, Ryan Pittman and Bronz Kaae were our captains. Japan won and elected to receive. We met on the sidelines for our pep talk from Coach Hall and ran back onto the field ready to start the game.

Japan mixed it up very well in the first half with mostly running and some passing. We tried mounting a couple of drives, but had to punt away. When we went into the locker room for halftime, we were behind 13-0. Coach Hall reminded us that we were still in it. He reiterated his comments about assignments and alignment. We wanted to make a good showing and show we could play this team. Twice we had good drives going, only to turn the ball over through fumbles. The heat and humidity combined with the sweat from our bodies caused some mishandling of the ball. That stopped any momentum we could get going. Unfortunately, Japan&

s strength showed and we lost, 26-6.

But of course we had set goals for the game. Naturally one was to win, but the chances were slipping away as the game went on. Another goal was to at least score. And in the fourth quarter we drove down to the Japan 7-yard line. We got there on a series of plays with our no-huddle offense. We started from our own 33 with three completions from (Littleton) to Josh Conelius for 5 yards, 12 yards and 31 yards. An additional 5-yard completion to Justin Meza put us on the Japan 14. Then a defensive pass interference call on Japan gave us half the distance to the goal and a first down on the 7-yard line. Littleton threw an incomplete pass in the flat to bring up second down.

Then we connected. Josh (Cornelius) and I were running slant patterns to the middle of the end zone. Alex (Lawniczak) was running a post. As soon as the ball was snapped, Sam dropped back and, due to a swarming goal line defense, was rushed really hard. He was nearly tackled and told me later that there were no throwing lanes so he started scrambling, looking for a receiver. I was trying to get away from the linebacker covering me and found a way to get behind him. Sam saw me and lobbed a short pass over the defense to the back of the end zone. I jumped and found his perfect pass coming straight at me. We achieved our goal &

Touchdown! The players have all coined it as the first TD of the century for us in the Pacific Rim Bowl. Hopefully the first of many.

There are positives that we are bringing home from this game. One, we have our first game out of the way. Not a scrimmage, a real knock-down, sock-em/rock-em football game. Next, our performance against an all-star team considering the adversity, fatigue, time zone change, food, heat, humidity and distractions. Third, it provides us with a baseline to determine the adjustments we&

ll need to make for preparing for our regular season. This all leads to

developing the confidence and attitude we need to start and perform in our regular season.

But most importantly, the fortune of making new friends, understanding a new culture and gaining from new experiences. As Coach Hall said after the game, &

Unless you were here, you will never understand the Olympic-like closing ceremony atmosphere that the players showed on the field after the game.&

Handshakes, hugs, congratulations and photos. I&

m really glad that I was part of this.

Next up: the trip home. Sayonara from Japan.

is an Ashland High football player who traveled to Japan with the team to play the Japanese all-stars in Saturday&

s Pacific Rim Bowl. To contact Bruce, send him an e-mail at rbruce97520@msn.com. To comment on this article, contact Daily Tidings Sports Editor Joe Zavala at 482-3456 ext. 3020 or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com.