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TOP > Game Report > Pearl Bowl final preview: IBM takes on nemesis Obic in bid for title repeat

Game Report

Pearl Bowl final preview: IBM takes on nemesis Obic in bid for title repeat


The adversaries in the championship game pose at the official press conference, from left, Obic quarterback Ikaika Woolsey, defensive back and vice-captain Keizaburo Isagawa and head coach Naoki Kosho, IBM head coach Shinzo Yamada, defensive back and captain Shogo Nakatani, kicker Genki Odakura and defensive end James Brooks.





After Shinzo Yamada took over as head coach of the IBM BigBlue nearly a decade ago, his objective was to build a squad that could take on the Obic Seagulls, the preemininent team during those formative years.

So Yamada welcomes the fact that the final step in his team’s bid to defend its Pearl Bowl tournament title will come against those same Seagulls, who are in a rebuilding process of their own.

IBM and Obic will meet in the Pearl Bowl championship game on June 19 at Tokyo Dome in a classic match-up of powerhouses filled with impact players. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

“The Obic Seagulls is one of the teams that really pushed our team to the next level, in terms of how they dominated our team in the past,” Yamada said at the official press conference for the game last week.


“We sat and talked about this and (thought) what should we do to be able to match Obic. Part of the solution was bringing in an American quarterback. Since then, it has changed, football has changed, our team has changed. Our team has evolved, and their team has evolved. I’m really happy that we could play them at this level.”


For second-year Obic head coach Naoki Kosho, he will be looking for his first big title after failing to make a championship in either the spring or fall last year.


“From the start of this season, we resolved to do better than last year and put everything into winning a championship,” Kosho said. “Spring or fall, the season doesn’t matter. The opponent doesn’t matter. We continually give our full effort in every practice and every game.”


Among the bright spots for IBM has been the progress of second-year quarterback Yuki Masamoto, who has been taking the majority of snaps this spring as veteran Kevin Craft plays more of a mentoring role.


Yamada said he has no qualms in naming Masamoto, who threw for one touchdown and ran for another in the 27-19 semifinal win over the Nojima Sagamihara Rise, as his starter against Obic.


“He learned a lot from Kevin last year,” Yamada said. “Although he has been a back-up, he started in some games, some crucial games. He did well. In some games, he did not do well. This year, I think he is very confident about how he plays, and he’s making play calls by himself, so I’m really happy to see how he has developed.”


Masamoto will have to contend with a defense led by American defensive ends Kevin Jackson and B.J. Beatty, who have seen extensive action this spring.


“It’s always a close game against those guys, they have a lot of talent,” Jackson said of IBM. “A lot of things that we definitely have to be ready for when we play a team like that. They can hurt you in a lot of different ways.”


The two teams met last year in the fifth week of the fall season, and it could hardly have been closer. After Obic kicked a game-tying field goal with :32 left, it was decided in a tiebreaker, in which both teams scored touchdowns but Obic won 24-23 when IBM had a bad snap on its extra point and never got the kick off.


“They’ve been consistent for what, 10 years in this league, so it’s always great when you can play against a team like that,” IBM defensive end James Brooks said. “A team that you know is going to play hard for four quarters. If you can get a win against a team like that, it feels rewarding.


“We’ve had battles with them, last year they beat us by one on a last-second play. These last couple of years we’ve had some good battles and so we’re just looking forward to it.”


The BigBlue had a similar close call in last year’s Pearl Bowl final against the Lixil Deers, but they made the decisive play to secure a 21-20 victory. The Deers scored a touchdown with :48 left and decided to go for a 2-point conversion and the win, but Brooks knocked down Shohei Kato’s pass at the line of scrimmage, giving IBM its first-ever major title in its 40-year history.


The 1.95-meter Brooks, an All X-League selection in all three years he has played in Japan, looms as large as ever in the upcoming clash with Obic. Brooks played a key role in helping stop Nojima’s all-purpose quarterback Devin Gardner on two goal-line stands in the semifinals, and he’ll be called on to perform a similar task against Obic’s new quarterback, Ikaika Woolsey.


Woolsey, out of Hawaii University, has assimilated well with the Obic offense and become a weapon with both his arm and feet. In the 35-7 semifinal rout of Lixil, Woolsey threw for two touchdowns and ran for two.


“He’s a really good player, and the way he plays really matches up with Obic’s strength,” Yamada said. “He can run, he can pass, and they have a good offensive line, they have really good receivers.”


Brooks said he has only had a short glimpse of Woolsey and will get a better idea when they check the film. But he is always up to the challenge of stopping a talented quarterback.


“Obviously, whenever you have an American talent out here, he’s going to be pretty good, so I look forward to it,” Brooks said. “Especially quarterbacks. I love playing against quarterbacks that get high praise. Because my job is to get to the quarterback. I love it.”


At least on some plays, however, there will be a big obstacle between Brooks and the player with the ball. Depending on where he lines up, he will have to contend with Obic tackle Kai Maiava, a two-time All X-League selection.


“I don’t always line up on one side, but there definitely will be times when we have that match-up, and I look forward to it,” Brooks said. “He’s a great O-lineman, so I look forward to that battle.”


Woolsey, brought in as a replacement for Jerry Neuheisel, leads an offense that this spring has also featured rookie tailback Keita Naruse, who broke free on a 70-yard touchdown run against Lixil, and bruising fullback Asaki Mochizuki. The team’s success, Woolsey emphasized, centers on the offensive line.


“I feel like with us, at anytime we can make plays with the ball in the air or us running the ball,” Woolsey said. “That goes to the credit of the offensive line. Just the way they’ve been blocking has been outstanding the last couple of weeks. I think that’s definitely one of our strong suits of our offense.


“I’m a firm believer that the game is won in the trenches. If we can just continue what we’re doing, and making sure we make plays and everyone is on the same page, there’s no reason why we can’t be successful, not only for the Pearl Bowl but for the regular season.”


Having played at a major college, Woolsey said he is used to having to face someone like Brooks, who can exert immense influence on a game.


“Like how it was back home, there’s always going to be like a stud on defense, and that’s obviously him,” Woolsey said. “Not only him, but the rest of the 10 people on defense are good players, so it will be a good match-up. But I’m definitely looking forward to playing against a player like that.”


Adding to the excitement is the prospect of playing in front of 20,000 or so fans at Tokyo Dome.


“I love a big crowd,” Brooks said. “I feel I play better on a big stage. And everytime we play in Tokyo Dome, it just seems like it’s fun. It’s a bigger game, bigger crowd, it’s just fun. The stakes are higher. It’s great to go there and play in that atmosphere, and I love it, I feed off of it.”


And there is one more element of intrigue to the final. In just under three months, IBM and Obic will be back to face each other again in a blockbusting opening game of the fall season.


“Winning is very important, at the same time, challenging is more important,” Yamada said. “Because of how the seasons are, this is going to be a spring final but at the same time, we’re going to be playing them in the first game (of the fall) . So two games in a row, we’re going to do the same thing.”


And the excitement is building to see which team gets the early bragging rights.


—Ken Marantz for the X-League