Tokai University stunned a national audience by capturing its first-ever Hakone ekiden title with a tournament record at the last edition in January.

The team is ready to do it again. This time, with bigger confidence as the defending champion.

Tokai settled for a fourth-place finish at the Izumo ekiden, one of the three major collegiate ekiden events, in Shimane Prefecture in October. But it bounced back in the national collegiate ekiden championship with its first win in 16 years last month.

Tokai manager Hayashi Morozumi expects the next Hakone race, the country’s biggest New Year’s sporting event, will be a cutthroat competition and a title repeat won’t come easily for his team. Nonetheless, the 53-year-old expressed his faith in his squad entering the 96th edition of the 217.1-km race.

“There were things we did well and things we did not do well this year. In fact, we stumbled a little bit at Izumo,” Morozumi said at a news conference at the school’s main campus on Wednesday. “But we won at the national collegiate ekiden and brought back a good mood to ourselves.”

Morozumi has narrowed his squad for Hakone, which is officially called the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, down to 16 runners. Ten of them will be chosen ahead of the event, which will take place on Jan. 2 and 3. Aoyama Gakuin University, Toyo University, Kokugakuin University and Komazawa University are expected to be in the mix for the title.

Tokai earned the 2019 title with a Hakone record of 10 hours, 52 minutes, 9 seconds. It wound up building a huge gap of 3 minutes, 41 seconds over the runner-up and four-time reigning gold medalist Aoyama Gakuin University.

Morozumi said that his team will look for an even better way of winning this time. At the last Hakone ekiden, Tokai became one of the rare teams to win the title without posting the fastest time on either the first or second day. It was second on both days.

Tokai accomplished the feat in this year’s race with its “golden-age” runners, such as Ryoji Tatezawa, Shota Onizuka and Ryohei Sakaguchi. They remain with the team as senior athletes.

“We want to evolve — that’s our theme,” Morozumi said. “While we’ve had valuable experiences with the (Hakone) championship, we want to continue to evolve and shoot for an even higher place.”

Tatezawa, the team captain, said in an affirmative tone that this year’s team is better than last year’s with more depth and the competition to make the Hakone roster inside it has gotten a lot tougher.

Tatezawa added that Tokai does not particularly have one star runner who stands out, but he thinks his team is still as good as any other championship-caliber teams for Hakone.

“Our strength’s in the depth,” said Tatezawa, who did not compete in the Izumo ekiden and national championship due to his right hamstring and pelvic injuries this year. “And even if one of us does not perform well, other runners can make up for it.”

Asked if his team will enter the Hakone ekiden with bigger confidence than it did last year, Tatezawa quickly confirmed that it would.

“We feel like we can entrust the sash to the next runner assuredly,” the 22-year-old said. “Because all our runners are competitive. So we have more confidence than last year.”

Meanwhile, Tokai aims to evolve into a perennial winner of the collegiate ekiden in the years to come with some scientific assistance as well.

Tokai has introduced a treadmill with a “3-D motion capture system” at its Sports and Health Innovation Plaza, the school’s cooperative research facility. At the facility, the knowledge of the school’s different departments, not only sports-oriented ones, but others like the science and medical departments are gathered.

Noriaki Nishide, the team’s head coach, said that its athletes can run more effectively by analyzing their own performances, including their mechanics.

“For example, the great running performances of our senior athletes would remain (at the school even after their graduation) to help other, younger runners,” Nishide said.

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