When Reo Fujimaki arrived at Stansbury (Utah) High, the Japanese exchange student was looking for something to do when he wasn't in class. When the boys soccer team began training in November, Fujimaki showed up on a lark, running through some drills to see how he'd stack up against the school's existing varsity team.
A speedy blend of gumption and athleticism, Fujimaki quickly stood out. That wasn't necessarily a huge surprise, given soccer's prominent role in Japanese society, where the sport runs a close second in popularity to baseball, at both the professional and prep ranks. They weren't surprised when Fujimaki made the cut to be a part of the varsity team, or even when he was named a co-captain once formal drills and practices began.
However, they were shocked when they learned about Fujimaki's athletic background: He'd never played organized soccer at all before he arrived in the United States.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune's Bill Oram, Fujimaki has overcome that lack of experience to be one of Stansbury's most consistent and important players. Playing as a marauding defenseman, the exchange student has become a formidable force on the Stallions' back line. Stansbury coach Brandon Anderson even said the junior has saved a handful of goals with skillful individual defensive work.
Not bad for a player who could barely speak English just a few months ago, let alone discuss soccer strategies, even if he doesn't quite understand the sport's nuance … or, sometimes, what his coaches and teammates are trying to tell him on the field.
"I don't know what coach says," Fujimaki told the Tribune. "Soccer words, I do not know.
"I don't think in English. I focus on playing soccer."
Anderson and his team have credited Fujimaki's Japanese track background for easing his transition to top flight competitive high school soccer, with his speed often able to compensate for when he's beaten by an opponent's first feint or dodge. The budding talent has had little time to adjust to the speed and skill of American players because he was thrown directly into action from day one, the result of a mass exodus of Stansbury's 2010 squad to a Salt Lake City area club team.
Experienced squad or not, Anderson said his only regret about Fujimaki's tenure with the Stansbury soccer program is that it won't last longer.
"It's depressing," Andersen said, "because you only find kids like that so often."