Station by station, Keio University student-athletes hopped on the subway, lacrosse sticks in hand, to head to a five-hour practice on a gravel-covered field under the train's bridge, which had every reachable inch sprayed with graffiti. After getting off at their stop and arriving at the field, they noticed a new face among them — Amherst men's lacrosse assistant and former Denver Outlaw Andrew Lay, who had woken up at 5 a.m. in Tokyo to coach at their practice.
Lay had been staying with Keio's senior faceoff middie Masumi Jinno and his family for 10 days at the end of May — a once-in-a-lifetime trip that Lay wasn't even sure would be possible. After doing his due diligence and research, Lay had the opportunity to visit Tokyo to get acquainted with the national team and was then named to the roster for the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship just a couple days prior to Keio's practice.
As a graduate of the Keio Academy of New York, Jinno, along with the freshman players, was eager to learn from Lay, whose great-grandfather Daniel Houston Buchanan III taught economics at Keio University. He joined the faculty in 1914 and later was awarded the highest honor granted to any scholar in the country, Keizai Gaku Hakushi (Doctor of Science in Economics).
Lay's grandfather, Daniel Houston Buchanan IV, was born one year later in Tokyo, which qualified Lay to try out for a spot on Japan's national team roster. After his grandfather's birth certificate was confirmed, Lay impressed coach Yoshihiro Okubo and was immediately added to the team after the first day of tryouts.
"It was truly an eye-opening experience," Lay said. "It was kind of one of those cool things where you have this sensation you almost come full circle with the family tree almost 100 years apart. My great-grandfather was a professor there and 100 years later, I'm coaching at the same university halfway around the world."
During that one practice for Keio's lacrosse team that began before sunrise, the young men didn't care that they were drinking water out of garbage cans or didn't have grass to cleanly scoop up a ground ball. Questions were fired one after another and Lay quickly recognized the wealth of knowledge each player had of the sport worldwide.
"They would say, 'You know Mark Matthews?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm very good friends with Mark Matthews [the former University of Denver star and current Rochester Rattler]," said Lay, who listened in astonishment as each player continued to rattle off American and Canadian players, including midfielder Kyle Harrison (LXM Pro/Ohio Machine), faceoff man Alex Smith (formerly of Team USA and the Chesapeake Bayhawks) and goalie John Galloway (Rochester Rattlers).
"Starstruck is not the right word," Lay said. "They just follow it so closely that it kind of just blew my mind. It's halfway around the world and they're just so up to date with every detail knowing who's on the roster, where this person played, what their accolades were and every detail that leads up to who Mark Matthews is. They probably know more about Mark Matthews than I do and I went to school with him."
Lay is a University of Denver alum, who is proud to be a member of the first class to host a first round game of the NCAA tournament west of the Mississippi River as well as a member of the first class to make a final four appearance. This year, he has been able to witness everything come full circle — from seeing his college program thrive and advance to the final four for the third time in the past four years to joining Japan's national team after delving deep into his family history and earning a chance to learn about the Japanese culture. Lastly, he will soon return to his hometown of Denver for the world championships July 10-19 in Commerce City, Colo., to play for his grandfather's birth country in front of his family, friends and former coaches at both the high school and college level.
"It means a lot," said Lay, who had emailed the Japan coaches in 2012 but never heard back until six months ago. "The biggest thing is there are so many elements that play into it. First, this is a sport that has been very good to me, a sport that I love a lot and obviously, I try to make a career of coaching. It's something that the World Games will be in Denver, where I'm from. Back when I was in school, it was a big thing that the World Games were coming to Denver.
"Additionally, in terms of the Japanese piece, being able to really experience essentially what my grandfather experienced has been amazing. He was someone that I knew pretty well but unfortunately, he passed when I was fairly young. I kind of just stemmed that all together to figure out his past history, as well as the family tree in relation to where my roots really come from. The experience that he must have had being in Tokyo and growing up there and coming to the United States, it's kind of just one of those pieces where it's kind of hard to put into words."
Becoming a member of Japan's national team has all been very sudden for Lay, but coach Okubo quickly realized his potential and how much he could impact the team.
With Lay's experience in the United States and connections with players and coaches from other world teams – Jesse Schwartzman (Denver Outlaws), Brendan Mundorf (Chesapeake Bayhawks) and Max Seibald (New York Lizards) for the United States and Cam Flint (Denver Outlaws), Jeremy Noble (Denver Outlaws), Wesley Berg (Denver Outlaws) and assistant Matt Brown (Denver University) for Canada, just to name a few – Japan's coaching staff will be looking to him for his two cents.
"Of course, we'll be given some advantages in regards to scouting activities by Andrew," said Okubo. "However, the more positive thing for us is that we will be supported by Denver citizens at the World Championship, perhaps rather than U.S. and Canada! Andrew Lay's broad experience with certain skills have already made some good chemistry with other players and he will certainly be one of our key players in Denver."
Japan's best performance in the FIL World Championship came four years ago in 2010, when they placed fourth, but the Iroquois were not among the participating nations due to a passport controversy. The Iroquois are back in the Blue Division this year.
"We always respect the origin of the sport so I'm glad Team Iroquois will be back at the World Championship," said Okubo. "For our team, the first two games against Australia and Iroquois will be crucial to get back to the semifinal game. Thus, we must start the World Championship in full throttle."
|The Lax Kong store in Japan is "the most sophisticated" lacrosse store in the world, according to Lay. (Courtesy Andrew Lay)|
Japan has 12 players returning from its 2010 team, including leading scorer Wataru Tsugu and experienced veteran and defender Kota Hatakeyama. But this year, some young talent — 20-year-old Shunki Hatada, 21-year-old Tesuya Ozawa and 23-year-old Yuji Tadahira — will be added into the mix.
Yet, only five players on the team know English fairly well. Looking to assistant Motoki Hirata, who translated their game plan, Lay was able to play alongside his new teammates against six local club teams, including Hong Kong. He was relatively surprised with how much progress was made in only four days.
"I just coordinated little things for Andrew to be integrated into the team before he attended our practices," said Hirata, who also posted videos online for Lay to learn the sets on offense, defense, clears and rides. "Once he faced our players, I didn't see any problems since there are some English speaking players here, and also the 'Lacrosse Language' is always universal."
In less than 30 years after a kickstart donation of 10 sticks to Keio students from Johns Hopkins vice president Ross Jones and athletic director Bob Scott, that language has spread significantly, growing the game thanks to the work ethic ingrained in Japanese citizens.
"By the sounds of it, it's growing really fast," Lay said, who added how evident that was after visiting "the most sophisticated" lacrosse store in the world, Lax Kong, which clearly displays the country's admiration of the sport on an international scale. There are posters of Harrison, final four videos playing on the television and a full stock of equipment including any stick you could imagine.
"The reason I say that is Keio was the first university to start lacrosse and seeing how popular lacrosse really is now is pretty amazing," Lay said. "That was really eye-opening in terms of just going to Keio University and seeing 120 kids out there at 6 a.m. No matter where you go, you would see these players that really wanted to invest the time to get better, faster and stronger and have better shooting and better passing. The work ethic is mind blowing to me."
The next time Lay will be on the sidelines with his new Japan squad will be in Denver next month, playing midfield. So although he may not be able to practice with them, he is studying up online with each new video the coaches upload.
"The first game of the tournament against the Australians is going to be a huge statement game for us," Lay said. "We're staring down the barrel of the gun and that is going to be the game that makes or breaks our tournament right away."
Click here for ticket information for the 2014 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship July 10-19 in Commerce City, Colo., presented by Trusted Choice. Click here for hotel information.