From Okhotsk to Koshien: High school team trains in snow

It’s minus 18.6 degrees--the same temperature inside an average household freezer--but the Hokkaido Memanbetsu High School baseball team starts practice at 8 a.m. on training grounds 13 kilometers away from the ice-filled Sea of Okhotsk. Just standing there in late February made the insides of the 19 players’ nostrils freeze up.
“I bet few teams can practice under these conditions,” team captain Yuto Hirata says.
The players look as if they are skating on ice as they run on snow compacted by heavy machinery. During winter training, they wear long boots and engage in the same training schedule as they do in summer. On weekends, they hold practice games.
“We don’t think of our environment as a handicap,” says team manager Osamu Suzuki, 43. “It’s easy to find reasons for not being able to practice, but there is nothing we can’t do if we really make an effort.”
Believe it or not, training on snow has its advantages. Balls that bounce or skid on ice spin faster, “so in the summer, I can see the balls as if they’re in slow motion,” Hirata says.
The pitchers train their lower bodies on the snow by running, dragging tires behind them that are attached to a rope around their waists. Thanks to this training, right-handed pitcher Seiji Nikaido’s pitching speed improved by 10 kph over the past two years. At the Hokkaido regional tournament last summer, he marked his personal best of 145 kph (90 mph).
Memanbetsu High School is a small public school with a student body of 131. The first-year students only have one class. The baseball team had been discontinued until the 1999 academic year. When Suzuki--known for his enthusiasm in instructing junior high school students--came to teach in 2005, he organized a team and helped the team break through the Kitami district preliminary rounds for the first time in the summer of 2007.
The school’s hometown of Ozora, Hokkaido, has a population of roughly 8,000. Koshien Stadium can seat almost six times that number of people. “I can’t imagine how it’s going to feel, but I’m really looking forward to it,” Nikaido says. “I think it’s really interesting that we’re going from the Okhotsk region to Koshien.”
The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament kicks off on March 21. Memanbetsu will be playing against Kyushu Gakuin Lutheran High School on March 22.
(Read the whole story from The Asahi Shimbun)