Seagulls travel globe to find strong teams in hopes of improving game


Staff Writer

Despite their track record of consecutive championships in recent years, the Obic Seagulls aren’t resting on their laurels. They have a bigger picture in mind, and are trying to do as much as possible to make strides as the leading football club in Japan.

The Seagulls, reigning champions of Japan’s X League for the last four years, have made trips overseas for the last three years. The Seagulls flew to Germany in 2012 and 2013 to play exhibitions against German clubs (the Dresden Monarchs and Dusseldorf Panthers) and this summer they crossed the Pacific to play in the game’s motherland, the United States.

The club, based in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, traveled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama — a sister city of Narashino — to play against the APDFL Blazers, a team consisting of players from the southeast region of the Amateur to Professional Developmental League, and lost 16-12 in mid-August.

“Our national teams have played on the global stage,” Seagulls president and general manager Ken Namikawa said of the club’s intentions for the overseas trips. “It’s important to challenge the world. We have about 10 guys on the national team, but we wanted to challenge foreign teams with this team, that was the start.”

Inside Japan, the Seagulls have been an almost untouchable bunch. Since 2010, they have posted a 55-2 record combined over the spring and fall seasons, through their season-opening game of the ’14 fall season on Aug. 31. They claimed the X Bowl and Rice Bowl national championship titles four times apiece during that span.

But the Seagulls seemingly don’t have much interest in bettering their numbers or putting more championship trophies on their shelf.

They’re focused on developing their team, and ultimately developing Japanese football. The trips to Europe and America have been the part of the process for that purpose.

And this summer’s visit to Alabama wound up being a lot bigger, more meaningful experience for the Seagulls compared to their trips to Germany. Outside of the game against the Blazers, they were able to see a practice of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, 15-time NCAA national champions.

Obic head coach Makoto Ohashi said that it was an invaluable opportunity to learn what a football team from the U.S. was really like in first hand.

“We were curious what a semi-pro football team in the States would be like,” Ohashi said. “And we got a flavor of it. They showed their pride, being a team from where the game was born. This is something you wouldn’t be able to know unless you actually face them.”

Wide receiver Ryoma Hagiyama said the game against the Blazers left the Seagulls squad with a totally different feeling compared to domestic contests. The team Obic played wasn’t a NFL squad, nor even an top NCAA team, yet it taught the Japanese club about the potential and ability of the American players.

“Whether some of our guys who are said to be great over here had as much impact as some of (the Blazers’) top players did in the game . . . it wasn’t so much,” Hagiyama said.

Yet no matter how badly they get beaten, the Seagulls believe that it brings nothing but a positive influence on Obic and Japanese football.

“The whole of Japanese football has got to try to prosper,” Ohashi insisted. “It doesn’t mean much however we are as a single team aim to be a better team. We are said to be dominant, but we need competitive opponents that try to beat us (in order to develop Japanese game).”

Acknowledging that logistically it’s not easy for a football team to go to a foreign country, both Namikawa and Ohashi hope that other teams in Japan can follow their footsteps.

Longtime Seagull defensive end Kevin Jackson agreed in terms of promoting Japanese football outside of the nation.

“You go to places, especially in the U.S., and a lot of people don’t know there is football in Japan,” said Jackson, a native of Southern California and a former X League MVP. “So I think (the) more teams go abroad and get exposure, the better it is for us in what we do here.”

Shinzo Yamada, head coach of the IBM Big Blue, also of the X League, said that he was “envious” to see Obic having conducted their international trips. Yamada, a former player of the now-defunct NFL Europa and XFL, added that playing against a foreign country would also tighten the bonds inside the team.

Namikawa said his club intends to continue the international trips when possible.

“We came to know that it was hard to find a team to play against in the States,” he said. “But we would certainly like to keep this going. It could be a rematch (against the Blazers) or we could go to Canada next time.”