In his pursuit of becoming a professional soccer player, Toga Katsuma grew accustomed long ago to living away from his family’s home in Shiga, Japan. But making the leap to cross the Pacific Ocean and play at CCBC Essex was a different story.
“I had never left my home country before, but I had a similar experience in high school, so I don’t think it was a difficult decision,” he wrote via email. “Of course I missed my family. However, I made this decision because I believe that living alone for soccer is the best way to improve my soccer and grow as a person.”
That decision paid dividends last fall when Katsuma wrapped up his sophomore year as a midfielder for the Knights ranked third at the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division II level in points (57) and fifth in goals (22). On Jan. 14, Katsuma was named the NJCAA’s National Player of the Year and is believed to be the first athlete from CCBC Essex to receive such recognition.
It was an honor that at least one opponent thought was well deserved.
“For me, he was the best winger in the country [in] Division I or Division II,” said Monroe Community College coach Marcus DiBernardo, whose Mustangs captured the Division I national championship and edged CCBC Essex, 4-3, on Sept. 4 despite a pair of goals from Katsuma. “That’s how highly I rate him, and I told everybody, ‘You’ve got to take this kid. He’s amazing.’”
Katsuma is one of six Japanese players who contributed to the No. 3 Knights’ third consecutive run to the NJCAA’s Division II Final Four. Besides Katsuma, sophomore midfielder Kazuma Ishizuka led the team in assists with 19 and ranked fourth in points with 41, sophomore back Mizuki Saika started all 21 games and scored three goals, sophomore back Riku Kawano started 20 of 21 games and scored four goals, freshman midfielder Eishu Nishizono played in 15 games and recorded two goals and one assist and freshman forward Ariya Sithara played in 13 games and registered three goals and one assist.
The proliferation of Japanese players on the CCBC Essex roster has been fostered by coach Joe Fiedler, who remembered his team participating in a scrimmage with a travel team from Japan in 2018. When the Japanese coach asked Fielder after the game if he would like any of the Japanese players to join him on the Knights, Fielder replied that he would take the whole team.
In 2019, three Japanese players made the roster. The following season, there were four players from Japan, and in 2021, five Japanese players joined the program. While Fielder said he must spend a significant amount of time and energy raising funds to help the Japanese players meet the $12,000 annual tuition at CCBC Essex, he said the players are worth the labor.
“I think the best part of it is, they’re all really nice kids,” he said. “They don’t raise their voice, they don’t scream or yell, they’re very composed. After games, they’re cleaning up the field. They’re unbelievably respectful. They’re here to learn a new culture, and they’re here to better themselves as soccer players, and they’re here to get an education.”
That education begins as soon as the players arrive on campus. Fiedler said he has learned to combine a pair of Japanese players with a pair of American players in a two-bedroom apartment to help the transition process.
Nishizono said a pair of roommates in redshirt freshman goalkeeper David Filart and freshman midfielder Adrian Hernandez helped him adjust.
“They always take me to stores or malls to buy something,” he wrote via email. “The teammates are very nice guys. They supported me on and off the pitch. If there’s something I don’t understand, they’ll tell me.”
Besides family and friends, the Japanese players miss the food from their native country. They have cooked up dishes such as curry chicken, but one of their favorite restaurants near campus is a Chinese-American buffet that offers sushi, and they found a Japanese restaurant that served udon noodles when the team was in Wichita, Kansas, for the 2021 NJCAA Tournament.
On the field, the Japanese players might not be as physical as their American counterparts, but are more refined technically, according to Fiedler.
“Their on-the-ball technical skills are incredible,” he said. “The other part of it is, we’ve been lucky that most of the kids that we have gotten have had very high soccer IQs. Anything that we teach them or tell them tactically, they understand it because they’ve been taught it at a younger level.”
That talent was evident in Katsuma, who scored six game-winning goals and was named the National Player of the Year by United Soccer Coaches. Katsuma called both Player of the Year awards “a great honor.”
Sophomore back Ethan Stewart, an NJCAA second-team All American, said the Japanese players have contributed greatly to the program’s success. Midfielder Takeroh Murakawa converted a free kick for the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win against Heartland Community College on June 9, 2021, to send the team to the 2020-21 final, and Katsuma scored twice in a penalty shootout loss to Pima Community College in the title game on Nov. 20, 2021.
“They’ve been starting every game and playing lengthy minutes in each of the games and contributing goals,” he said. “So honestly, I don’t think we could have made it there without them.”
Fiedler said he hopes CCBC Essex will continue to be a destination for Japanese players.
“I like it from the cultural standpoint,” he said. “Obviously, I like it from the standpoint that they’re all good players and they’re all good people. … It’s very rare that we would have a kid that would not make an impact on our program. They’ve been really good to us, and I really like having them.”