Last week, Vancouver signed their first foreign player, Takuya Saito from Japan.
Saito has been one of Japan’s best players for a number of years now, playing for legendary Japanese club team Buzz Bullets and most recently for Samurai. He started playing Ultimate 10 years ago.
“I discovered Ultimate at Hosei University in April of 2004,” said Saito. “I was actually looking for a soccer team, but I became fascinated by this new to me sport and immediately decided that this is what I have to do with my university life.”
Saito also found the time to do some studying, because he did graduate after four years and is now teaching as a career. But he also immediately found a home with one of the best club teams in Japan, Buzz Bullets, where he played from 2008-2012.
In his five years with Buzz, the team won the All Japan Ultimate Championship each year, and also took 3rd in the open division at the 2010 World Ultimate Club Championships in Prague. Saito was a Team Japan member when they won the 2011 Asia-Oceanic Ultimate Championships in Taiwan. Team Japan also earned 5th place at the 2012 World Ultimate and Guts Championships in Sakai, Japan. Most recently, Saito joined the club team Samurai in 2013.
After an impressive career in Japan, Saito finds himself playing for the Vancouver Nighthawks thanks to his long-standing connections to the Vancouver Ultimate scene.
During a sojourn in Vancouver from May 2007 to February 2008, Saito played with the University of British Columbia. When he returned in 2011, he practiced with Furious George and traveled with the team to a tournament.
But it took a unpleasant experience playing against a Canadian team and an idea from one of the Nighthawks’ stalwarts to catalyze him to join the team for the upcoming season.
Morgan Hibbert is the one who had the idea.
“I got to know Takuya back in 2007 when he guested with Furious George and then met him again in 2010 in Prague when he was playing with Buzz Bullets,” said Hibbert. “I noticed his game had really improved since 2007, that he had become a very high level player. He visited Vancouver every now and then and occasionally would join a Furious practice. I was always half jokingly trying to get him to move to Vancouver and come play with us, so we were already friends before WUGC 2012 in Japan. We would meet again at this tournament with him playing for Japan this time.”
“At Worlds we had a very intense game between our two countries. At universe point it was my check that scored the winning goal for Japan. I was in a very foul mood after this loss, and unfortunately during Japan’s celebration when Takuya was rushing the field I was the first person he saw. Given that we are friends, in his euphoric state he naturally extended his hand to give me a high five, but this was literally seconds after I had just blown the game and I was in no mood to slap hands with anyone, so I declined. I would have done the same thing to one of my teammates, so I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
“On reflection I realized that my refusal to congratulate him could have been taken as less than sporting, so later I reached out to him and apologized. Takuya is a person of excellent character and held no ill feelings.”
Hibbert and Saito kept in touch and when the Nighthawks started up last year, Morgan tried to recruit him, but for logistical reasons it didn’t work out. They kept trying and this year they were able to make it happen.
“I recruited him for several reasons,” said Hibbert. “He has become one of the world’s top players, having starred for Buzz Bullets and Team Japan. He is also a player of very high character and someone with several friends already on the team and thus would fit in extremely well. It is also an excellent opportunity for me and my teammates to learn from him, and for him to learn from us, given that normally we play somewhat different styles of Ultimate.”
Saito plays as a cutter, and his strongest attributes on the field are speed and agility. According to Hibbert, he plays a fairly typical style of Japanese Ultimate.
“He is very quick, makes lots of slashing cuts, and has very high level disc skills with the ability to make quick accurate passes,” said Hibbert. “At the moment I have no idea what role he will fill with the Nighthawks. Given his talent it won’t be a problem. He’ll find a way to contribute.”
Head Coach and General Manager Andrew Lugsdin agrees with Hibbert’s assessment of Saito and is really looking forward to seeing what Saito can do for his team.
“In Vancouver, there have been a few times over the years that Japanese players, including him, have come over here to play with us, and it’s always been a great experience for the team,” said Lugsdin. “We’ve always had great respect for how they play the game there, so we’re hoping it can be an experience where the player learns from the team and we learn something from the player.”
You can buy tickets for the upcoming season here to see Saito, Hibbert, and the rest of the Nighthawks at Thunderbird Stadium.