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New-look Deers put hopefuls through their paces

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

The Lixil Deers, formerly known as the company-owned Kajima Deers, are taking their first steps forward as a new club team. The Deers, one of the X League power houses, on Saturday held their first tryout to look for new talent outside of Kajima Corporation.

Until last year, only Kajima employees could play for the team. But now that the Deers have parted ways with Kajima and turned into a club team mainly sponsored by Lixil Corporation, the door is open to players who used to play for other teams including college graduates.

“We are glad that we have a lot of high-level players coming to this tryout,” said defensive coordinator Goro Ito, who spoke to the media in place of head coach Kiyoyuki Mori, who was absent because he had to attend Japan’s national team practice held on the same day in Chiba. Mori is also Japan’s head coach.

“This is the first time we have taken players through a tryout,” said Ito. “We are looking for a successful way to get ready for the season.”

One of the major changes is that the Deers can have foreign players, who are not Kajima employees, on their roster. Some club teams in the X League, such as the four-time national champion Obic Seagulls, last season’s runnerup Fujitsu Frontiers, and the IBM BigBlue, have foreign players that have made a big impact for their teams.

Sixteen players took part in Saturday’s tryout at the Deers’ home field in Chofu, Tokyo. They went through 40-yard sprints, bench presses, shuttle runs, and some other drills as well as an interview with coaching staff. According to team staff, four former college players and at least three X Leaguers were included. Active X league players can participate in the tryout with permission from their current team.

Joe Shelton was the one of the participants and the only American in the tryout. The 34-year-old Shelton came to Japan earlier this year to help his younger brother, Jamar Smith, who joined the Hitachi Sunrockers Tokyo of the National Basketball League, to concentrate on playing and training.

The Deers strength coach, who also serves in the same role with the Sunrockers, recommended him for the tryout.

“I took (that recommendation) as the opportunity to come up today,” said the 173-cm, 71-kg Shelton, who played wide receiver, cornerback, and kick returner in high school, but has not played football since. “I’m OK. I have the confidence in myself. I kind of disappointed myself when I ran the 40, but I got comfortable in running the ball and catching the ball and it built the more confidence in me.”

Shelton’s hopes of becoming the first American to play for Lixil have been put on hold as Mori told The Japan Times on Monday that he didn’t make the team this time. But Shelton at least got on the radar of the Deers, who start the inaugural season on April 29 against the Bulls at Kawasaki Fujimi Stadium in the Pearl Bowl Tournament.