Tom Hovasse’s initial reaction to the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics was one of disappointment. The head coach of Japan women’s basketball team had felt his players were ready to ride a wave of momentum into the Tokyo Games.

That’s not a feeling shared by everyone, however. Some on the team are looking forward to having more time to prepare for the world stage, while some younger talents hope the one-year delay will give them a better shot at making the 12-woman squad.

The Akatsuki Five are currently on their first training camp in nine months, practicing with a group of 21 players at Tokyo’s National Training Center. But missing from the camp roster are Yuka Osaki and Asami Yoshida, two of the best players the country has seen.

Osaki, a power forward who returned to the court late last year, after giving birth in 2018, to compete for Japan at the Olympics decided she could not wait for next year and opted to retire over the summer.

Yoshida, a long-time starting point guard for the team, called it quits in the spring of 2019 but came out of retirement half a year later, but then left the Eneos Sunflowers of the Women’s Japan Basketball League and has not played since. She hasn’t officially announced her retirement, but Hovasse doesn’t think she will continue to compete.

On Monday, Hovasse emphasized his intent to move forward with the women he has available and focus on adding potential upgrades to the team, including new talent that might not have made the squad if the Olympics had been held as scheduled.

“Their retirements are big,” Hovasse said of Osaki and Yoshida during an online news conference. “But Miyazawa has had her knees kind of banged up so it could’ve been trouble for us had the Olympics been held this year,” he said, referring to forward Yuki Miyazawa. Center/forward Ramu Tokashiki “was pleased that the games were pushed back to next year,” Hovasse added. “I was disappointed a little bit, but it is what it is.”

Maki Takada, the oldest player among the training camp squad and a core presence on the team along with Tokashiki and a few others, said that she had donned the national team jersey for a long time along with Osaki and Yoshida and had hoped to compete together again. But she added that she respected their decisions and was confident that the team could achieve its goal of a gold medal at the games.

Akatsuki Five women's head coach Tom Hovasse instructs his players during Monday's practice. | COURTESY OF THE JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
Akatsuki Five women’s head coach Tom Hovasse instructs his players during Monday’s practice. | COURTESY OF THE JAPAN BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION

“We have competed in international tournaments without Osaki and Yoshida, and we want to concentrate on how well we can play with the players we have now,” said the 31-year-old Takada, who along with Osaki, Yoshida and Tokashiki led Japan to the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Personally, I’m the oldest so I want to make sure I’m performing my leadership duties and communicating well with our head coach and other staff.”

Hovasse called up some younger players to see if they could be significant additions to the national team, which is currently ranked tenth in the world. The American said his primary focus for the camp was to add depth to his point guard and inside positions.

Nanako Todo, a 19-year-old up-and-coming shooting guard, is among the young players motivated to impress Hovasse and his coaching staff with their abilities during the camp.

Todo, who was chosen as the 2019-20 WJBL Rookie of the Year competing for the Toyota Boshoku Sunshine Rabbits, attended an earlier training camp before the Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgium in February — in which Japan participated for experience despite having automatically qualified as the host — but did not make the the final roster.

At the time, Todo felt like her chance to play in the games on home soil had faded. Now she thinks she’s been given a second chance.

“I would like to showcase my game better than on previous occasions,” the Hokkaido native said. “I have a stronger mindset to want to be chosen (for the Olympic roster), and would like to give everything I have so I won’t have any regrets.”

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