Ashland rolls out welcome wagon for Japanese All-Stars

ASHLAND — Members of a Japan All-Star football team were greeted with loud applause as they arrived at the Ashland High School gym Sunday.

More than 100 students, parents and community members turned out to welcome the 60 players and officials to the U.S. and host them on their vacation.

This is the fifth trip here by the Japan All-Star team to play Ashland in the Pacific Rim Bowl, and the series' 10th game. Every two years, the teams take turns traveling to the other's country, building bridges, playing football and having a good time.

The game itself is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Ashland High's Walter A. Phillips Field.

"This is one more thing that sets Ashland apart and makes it a great place to raise kids," Ashland Athletic Director Karl Kemper said. "The learning experience for these boys goes far beyond just the game."

The Pacific Rim Bowl began out of the combined passions of Akira Furikawa, a retired chairman of the American Football Association, and former Ashland coach Jim Nagel. Furikawa had a dream of bringing together Japanese high school football players and having them compete against an American high school team. When he met Nagel, the idea took off, and the first bowl game was played in 1988 in Osaka, Japan.

The previous Pacific Rim Bowl was in 2005, when Ashland's seniors were sophomores.

"Most of these seniors went to Japan in 2005, so they already know what this relationship means and how important it is," said Grizzlies defensive coordinator Dave Kitchell, who will be participating in his ninth bowl game.

"It's pretty cool that we get to come together and play these guys," said Ashland senior Josh Hogeland, who will be making his second Pacific Rim Bowl appearance. "There is actually a kid that I met in Japan who made the team that gets to come here."

The Japan All-Stars is made up of 45 players chosen from among 200 who tried out from more than 50 high schools in Osaka. This year, 22 families will be hosting the Japanese athletes in their homes for the week.

Barbara Dierks, whose son Matt will be a senior for the Grizzlies, welcomed four of the Japanese students into her home. The family first began hosting the Japanese students many years ago, when Matt was only a ball boy for the high school team.

Rob and Pam Skinner, who lived in Japan for 10 years, waited with their children for the Japanese athletes to arrive while holding a "Welcome to Ashland" sign in Japanese text. Two of their children were born in Japan during the 10 years that Rob Skinner did missionary work there, and so they have close ties to the country and its culture.

"We're really looking forward to meeting these kids," Rob said.

After the Japan contingent arrived and unloaded its equipment, each member went home with their host family, then enjoyed a welcome celebration and barbecue at Emigrant Lake that evening.

Both the All-Stars and the Grizzlies will be practicing at Ashland High between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. through Thursday.

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