December 2, 2023 | CAJ Knights Invitational
Coming into the 2023-24 season as the defending Far East Team and Dual champions, St. Mary’s had it their way last Saturday at the largest tournament in the Kanto Plain. Normally, the tournament consists of the 6 Kanto teams but there were 10 teams present. On top of Kinnick, Zama, Yokota, CAJ, ASIJ, and St. Mary’s, there were MC Perry of Iwakuni, Edgren of Misawa, EJ King of Sasebo, and an inaugural team, K International School present. The tournament had a high school division, middle school division, and a girls division, making it the largest tournament in Kanto, perhaps in all of KPASS history. Despite the competitive environment, St. Mary’s took 1st place as a team with 70 team points, just 2 points ahead of Kinnick in second place. This result was despite not having any wrestlers competing at the 107lb and 285lb weight classes and despite only having one champion out of the 7 finalists (the most in any other team).
“Win is a win, it’s a good start,” commented Coach Yabui, “but we have a lot of work to do to maintain our lead.”
The Lone Champion
Defending Far East champion, Roman Leyko, was the only champion for the Titans at the 172lb weight class. He defeated 4 opponents in a dominant fashion with his near-arm-far-legs and leg laces. In his match against ASIJ, he was put on his back for a moment as he was in bad position, but recovered and controlled the match from there onwards. “He [Roman] is looking much more solid than last year technically and physically, but he just needs to be careful of those positions [bad positions that puts him on his back], because that can end the match even if he is ahead 9-0,” warned Coach Yabui.
The two other returning Far East champions, Hugo Miyamoto and Nathaniel Twohig, easily made it to the finals of the 114lb and 139lb weight class respectively, but both got upset in their last match. Hugo was able to do a huge 4 point arm throw in his previous match and perhaps that’s what he wanted when he attempted multiple attempts at the arm throw in the finals which did not work. Hugo’s strength lies in his fireman’s carry and front headlock positions. Arm throws are not a “go-to” move but more of a desperation maneuver. His opponent basically scored off of Hugo’s poorly attempted arm throw. Nathaniel simply lacked urgency in his finals, being pinned with an obvious outside cradle off of his bad shot attempt. He was clearly in danger of the cradle, but did nothing about it until it was too late. However, Coach Yabui did not sound worried: “They are champions, but still only second year wrestlers and they are going to make rookie mistakes which they just need to learn from more experience. They are both solid wrestlers and this loss doesn’t change that; it was better it happened now than a month later.”
St. Mary’s has traditionally struggled in the heavier weight classes. The school demographic just does not provide for students weighing naturally over 200lb. Two of the most successful heavy weights in the school were Kurt Beyer (1976 Far East champion) and Chidi Agbo (2011 & 2012 Far East champion). Before mid-2000’s, the heavy weight was 215lb, but since then, DoDDs added 275lb as an additional weight class. Now, that 275lb is 285lb with the new weight class system implemented from this season. Out of the 89 Far East champions, only 3 wrestlers have won at the 215lb & 275lb weight classes (Kurt Beyer ‘76, Chidi Agbo ‘11 & ‘12, and Shane Koslow ‘17). While there have been some successful wrestlers at 180lb (which is now 189lb), any weight class above 180lb has been the Achilles heel for the Titans. But perhaps this jinx could change with Kei Fujita at 189lb and Jimin Kim at 215lb this season. While still unable to fill the 285lb weight class, Kei and Jimin won 3rd and 2nd respectively. Returnee from last season, Kei Fujita stepped on the mat with much more confidence and technical skills. Using his headlock and front headlocks, Kei defeated ASIJ, Kinnick, and MC Perry’s 189lb wrestlers to earn his bronze medal. His only loss came from the finalist from Yokota. Jimin was perhaps the biggest surprise. Lack of confidence is a common issue with St. Mary’s wrestlers, but not for Jimin. For some reason, Jimin displayed high confidence and energy in all of his matches.
“Jimin has been showing a great attitude to learn and grind during all practices,” complimented Coach Yabui. In his first match, he nicely countered the opponent’s headlock, which the team has not worked on yet, but Jimin reacted with good mat sense. In his semi-finals, he showed a inside leg trip to trip his opponent for a pin which was completely out of the blue. He suffered a pin in the finals, but certainly sent a message to the Far East: St. Mary’s is competitive at 215lb this year.
American schools such as ASIJ and base schools, often will have experienced wrestlers moving in from the US as transfer students, and ASIJ this year has 2 big recruits. They are two brothers with the older one being a high level wrestler in the US. The younger brother faced, Jed Schimtz and the older brother faced Luke Shane in the finals. These wrestlers, while not impossible, are hard to beat with their experience that they come with and the style of wrestling that’s different.
As these two brothers have not trained at ASIJ before, their style is very different from everyone else at ASIJ which is somewhat predictable. St. Mary’s struggled with a “move-in” wrestler last season from ASIJ as well. Despite their losses in the finals, both Jed and Luke looked very good on Saturday. Jed wrestled in a calm, focused, but fierce manner, hitting his double legs and fireman’s carries. Luke as relentless and tenacious throughout the day shooting multiple times in a match and being aggressive; something that he lacked up until the Far East last year. They both proved that they are one of the top wrestlers in the Far East to look out for.
The Super Rookie
Ryan Murase came up from the middle school program in his first year in high school. Everyone knew he had potential, but it seems that this potential is blooming faster than people thought. He is “super” in that his double leg shots, mat sense, positioning, and speed are already good enough to be competitive in high school. He is a “rookie” as he was 0.2lb overweight to make the 114lb weight class, thereby competing with a huge weight disadvantage at the 121lb weight class. However, his performance was worthy of respect as he defeated 3 wrestlers despite the weight disadvantage to place 3rd in his first debut high school tournament. The only loss came from the ASIJ move-in wrestlers who eventually won the weight class. He has great work ethic and determination to win. It would be fun to watch what he can do at his actual weight class, 114lb next tournament.
Kabilan Baskaran also showed great improvement from last season. “We [coaching staff] know he wasn’t happy with last season’s results and he is really hungry this year,” commented Coach Yabui on Kabilan. He works hard in the room and is learning moves very quickly. On top of his high crotch and fireman’s, now he has learned a duck under and an ankle pick. Utilizing his new skill sets, Kabilan wrestled through a competitive weight class to make it to the finals, then suffering a loss against the defending Far East champion from ASIJ (who is the aforementioned “other move-in” wrestler last season).
Dongwoo Leem also is another second year wrestler who has been showing great improvement in his technique and attitude. After defeating his first opponent from K International, he lost in the next round.
Jo Kaijima, second year wrestler, wants to win badly. He shows it in the practice room and in a match. He has a competitive mindset. Getting caught in a rookie mistake of going the wrong way when defending a headlock, he had to settle for 5th place. What puzzles his coaching staff is that he has a beautiful fireman’s carry but never uses it in a match. Instead he insists on a poorly timed single leg-ish whatever the move is. Overall, he is a well rounded wrestler and can be more competitive when he can find his best moves and execute them relentlessly.
Shahir Mostafa is a valuable member in the mid weight classes which is also thin for St. Mary’s this year. He had a tough day suffering 2 losses. Shahir can be a good wrestler with more focus and consistency in his training.
Jotaro Yamaoka went trough a tremendous physical change and improvement in his technique. Jotaro was the 215lb wrestler last season but unfortunately got a concussion at the end of season to forfeit his Far East debut. With much regret he had, he decided to train over the off season at a local wrestling gym. This definitely paid off as he lost about 20lb
Kai Sandoval has the most experience on the team wrestling since middle school years. He has a tricky and deceiving style of wrestling with his flexibility, sudden change of speed, and neck wrench counters. But perhaps the 145lb weight class out powers Kai who is physically not strong. He wrestled tough, but settled for a bronze on Saturday.
An integral part of a strong program is the incoming rookies and newbies. First year wrestlers Yuya Nemoto, Kent Weiss, Max Long, Ken Wakabayashi, Yuki Seo, Kaito Takasaki, Tajwar Ali, Luke Yamada, Harry Parker, and Jainam Shah went through what most rookies go through on Saturday: eliminated from the tournament after the first round. Geroge Adams, Tristan Ng, and Minjoon Sohn successfully won their debut match but lost afterwards.
“It’s just very normal for rookies not to win; that’s what makes them rookies. But, this year’s rookies are very motivated and have a strong desire to become stronger. It’s unlike other years which many rookies were very timid, but this year’s rookies are determined. That’s very good and I really look forward to their progress this season and next season. Every champion was once a rookie; they just need to be patient, never give up, and keep working,” explained Coach Yabui with high hopes for these rookies’ futures.
Coach Yabui is perhaps correct about saying that “every champion was once a rookie”. Of course, as cliché as it sounds, St. Mary’s has a good proven record of turning students who may not have talent or who may not be physically strong or fast into competitive wrestlers and champions. Athletic students are a rare commodity at St. Mary’s. But, even so, St. Mary’s is has the second most Far East titles and the third most individual Far East champions in the Far East. The 2010-2019 decade was owned by St. Mary’s; of the 20 Far East titles possible, St. Mary’s took 11 Far East championships in 10 years, far beyond 5 for Kinnick, 3 for Kubasaki, and 1 for Kadena (and, St. Mary’s and other international schools did not compete in Far East for the 2010 tournament). It is through the dedicated and highly qualified coaching staff, the extra intensive workouts during Christmas break when others are on break, and the intelligence and discipline of the St. Mary’s students that has always proven to be successful. There are a total of 47 middle school and high school wrestlers combined this year, the highest since the 2016 and 2017 seasons with close to 70 wrestlers. Since the COVID pandemic, as with other schools, the St. Mary’s wrestling program is building back up.
114lb—Hugo Miyamoto (2nd)
121lb—Jed Schmitz (2nd), Ryan Murase (3rd)
127lb—Luke Shane (2nd)
139lb—Nathaniel Twohig (2nd)
145lb—Kai Sandoval (3rd)
152lb—Kabilan Baskaran (2nd)
172lb—Roman Leyko (Champion)
189lb—Kei Fujita (3rd)
215lb—Jimin Kim (2nd)
St. Mary’s 70 points
Kinnick 68 points
Yokota 56 points
CAJ 46 points
ASIJ 42 points
EJ King 26 points
Edgren 20 points
Zama 12 points
MC Perry 6 points
K International 0 points