Ashland rolls out welcome wagon

The members of the Japan All-Star football team were welcomed with loud applause as they arrived at the Ashland High School gym Sunday afternoon. More than 100 students, parents and community members turned out to welcome the 60 Japanese football players and officials to the United States and host them on their vacation.

This is the fifth trip that the Japan All-Star team has taken to the city to play Ashland in a game called the Pacific Rim Bowl, and the 10th game since the tradition began. The Pacific Rim Bowl is the only Pan-Asian football series known in the U.S., and it is also nearing 20 years as a AHS tradition. Every two years the Japan All-Stars and the AHS football team take turns traveling to the other's country, building bridges, playing football and having a good time.

"This is one more thing that sets Ashland apart and makes it a great place to raise kids," AHS Athletic Director Karl Kemper said. "The learning experience for these boys goes far beyond just the game."

The creation of the Pacific Rim Bowl was due to the combined passions of Akira Furikawa, a retired chairman of the American Football Association, and former AHS football coach Jim Nagel. Furikawa had a dream of bringing together Japanese high school football players and having them compete against an American high school team. When he met Nagel, the idea took off, and the first bowl game was in 1988 in Osaka, Japan.

The last Pacific Rim Bowl was in 2005, when the AHS team's seniors were sophomores.

"Most of these seniors went to Japan in 2005, so they already know what this relationship means and how important it is," said AHS defensive coordinator Dave Kitchell, who will be participating in his ninth bowl game.

"It's pretty cool that we get to come together and play these guys," said AHS senior Josh Hogeland, who will be making his second Pacific Rim Bowl appearance. "There is actually a kid that I met in Japan who made the team that gets to come here."

The Japan All-Stars comprises 45 student athletes chosen from among 200 athletes who tried out for the team from more than 50 high schools in Osaka, Japan. This year, 22 families will be hosting the Japanese athletes in their homes for the week, as the team practices and prepares for Friday evening's game. Barbara Dierks, whose son Matt Dierks will be a senior on the AHS team next year, welcomed four of the Japanese students into her home this year. The family first began hosting the Japanese students many years ago, when Matt was only a ball boy for the high school team.

Rob and Pam Skinner, who lived in Japan for 10 years, waited with their children for the Japanese athletes to arrive while holding a "Welcome to Ashland" sign in Japanese text. Two of their children were born in Japan during the 10 years that Rob Skinner did missionary work there, and so they have close ties to the country and its culture.

"We're really looking forward to meeting these kids," Rob said.

The Japan All-Stars arrived at AHS just after — p.m., and the awaiting crowd welcomed them into Ashland. After unloading their equipment, each student found his host family and went home with them to settle in before heading out to a welcome celebration and barbecue at Emigrant Lake on Sunday evening.

Both the All-Stars and AHS will be practicing at Ashland High School between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., today through Thursday.

The 10th Pacific Rim Bowl will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday on the Walter A. Phillips Field.

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