IZUNOKUNI, Shizuoka Prefecture -- One year after their lives were torn apart by Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, players from Ishinomaki Technical High School are preparing to compete on one of the biggest stages in Japanese baseball.
When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit on March 11, manager Yoshitsugu Matsumoto was leading his team in a routine practice at the school's baseball field. Earthquakes are all too common in Japan but like everyone who experienced that terrible day, Matsumoto knew this one was different.
Within minutes, the school was transformed into an evacuation center and it wasn't long before the same field the team was practicing on was under 1.4 meters (4.5 feet) of water. The players and Matsumoto would spend the next three days in the school before moving to a safer evacuation facility.
Over the next several days, 70 percent of Matsumoto's players would learn they had lost family members or homes in the devastation.
On March 11, to mark the first anniversary of the tragic disaster, the team flied to Osaka to prepare for the March 21-April 1 spring invitational high school baseball tournament, where they will be a symbol of resilience and recovery to the people of Ishinomaki and the prefecture of Miyagi.
Ishinomaki, a city of 150,000 on Japan's northeast coast, was one of the hardest hit towns in the earthquake and tsunami that left 19,000 dead. Approximately 46 percent of the city was inundated by several tsunamis up to 10 meters (32 feet) high.
After suffering so much, the people of Ishinomaki will draw hope for the future and have reason to cheer when their team takes the field.
"Baseball is very popular in Ishinomaki so I'm sure our games will provide some relief to the people back home,'' Matsumoto said. "My players weren't the only ones facing difficult times.''
As difficult as the events of March 11 were on his team, Matsumoto knew the best thing for his players would be to get back to baseball as soon as possible.
"When you are young like they are, you need something to throw yourself into,'' Matsumoto said. "It was very tough on them but baseball has helped them to deal with their losses. Sports can be very important in this way.''
Within eight weeks of the disaster the team was back practicing on the same field that was flooded.
Ishinomaki is taking part in the spring invitational as a 21st Century team. The Japan High School Baseball Federation each year selects three teams to take part that have served as a model school in some way. With a second-place finish in autumn prefectural qualifying tournaments after all they had been through, Ishinomaki was an obvious choice.
"This will be the first time in 46 years for a team from Ishinomaki to take part in the tournament,'' Matsumoto said. "I hope our games can lift the spirits of the people back home.''
The spring and summer high school baseball tournaments enjoy tremendous popularity in Japan. All of the games are telecast live on national broadcaster NHK and fans gather around TV's when their local team takes the field at Koshien Stadium, home of the Hanshin Tigers of Japanese professional baseball.
"Going to Koshien is about the biggest honor a school can bring to its town,'' said author Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball. "There are 4,000 high school teams in Japan so it's a huge honor to go. It's up there with sending an astronaut into space.''
The star players of the championship team achieve a degree of celebrity status. Many -- like MLB stars Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish -- have gone on to play in the professional leagues.
"Players who have played in Koshien are coveted by companies because of the training and effort they've put in to make it all the way to Koshien. It shows they've got character and fighting spirit,'' added Whiting.
Matsumoto knows his players have plenty of fighting spirit, but is cautious when asked how they will react to playing in such a big tournament.
"We won't know until we get there,'' Matsumoto said. "But the players are in good spirits and we're looking forward to the competition.''
In order to better prepare for Koshien, the team was invited to train in the warmer weather of Shizuoka prefecture south of Tokyo at Nirayama High School in Izunokuni.
The offer to train at Nirayama high was just another example of "Kizuna,'' a notion of the inseparable bond between people that has flourished in Japan since the earthquake and tsunami.
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