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Former head coach for the Japan men’s national volleyball team Gary Sato was thrilled to see his old team as he took in one of the two games that made up an exhibition series between Japan and the United States in Southern California on May 11.

In an email to The Japan Times, Sato said that “it is great the Japanese men’s national team came over to USA.”

The game he went to was held at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Long Beach State University.

“It was great to see the Japan team at Long Beach and say hello to the players and (current head coach Masashi) Nambu-san,” said Sato, adding that he even watched the other game of the series, played on May 6 at the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles, over the Internet a few days after the Long Beach contest.

The Japanese team is currently preparing for the May 28-June 5 final Olympic qualifying tournament. From the eight-team tourney in Tokyo, the top Asian nation plus three other top teams from the remaining seven countries will earn spots in the Olympics.

Sato, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, was hired as the first-ever foreign head coach for a Japan national team, men’s or women’s, in February 2013. Originally, Sato, who served as an assistant for the U.S. men’s national squad for three Olympics, including the squad that won the gold medal at the 1988 Games in Seoul, was expected to lead Japan through to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But he was let go after just a year as the Japan Volleyball Association was allegedly unsatisfied with results, and Nambu took over Sato’s position.

Observing Team Japan playing against world No. 5 United States in person, Sato felt that many of the ideas that he and David Hunt, his assistant for Japan, “had imagined have been put in motion.”

Yet Sato, who was hired as an assistant for the USC men’s team last summer, insisted that “whether or not it is from the input we gave is not important.”

“What matters is that some key younger players have been added and experience in other foreign leagues has been included,” he said.

“The younger players will gain valuable experience along with (Takeshi) Nagano, who I think is a world-class libero. The young middle blockers looked good and a healthy (Takaaki) Tomimatsu (as well).

“In my opinion, I hope there are solid game plans and strategies prepared and implemented (against) each of the opponents and a key will be a consistently good performance by (wing spiker Kunihiro) Shimizu.”

Overall, Sato had a positive impression of the Japanese team, which finished sixth with a 5-6 record at last year’s World Cup and is presently ranked 14th in the world.

“Team Japan is in good hands with head coach Nambu. He has experience with many of the players and will know how to get the best out of them,” the 61-year-old said.

Although Sato had to depart the Japanese national team after such a short time, he has no ill feelings.

“I have fond memories of Japan and the team,” Sato said. “And I feel like being there helped prepare me for USC. USC also has strong traditions and strict compliance to the NCAA rules and regulations. Striving for excellence — much like the entire nation of Japan.”

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