EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The Michigan State women’s lacrosse team took the field 23 times during their 2016 regular season. With 27 players on the team, there was plenty of talent on display when watching from a distance. However, one player had a background in the sport of lacrosse much different from everyone else.
Shoko Hiruta wore No. 24 for the Spartans this past season while on a study abroad from Japan. An environmental policy major at Keio University in Tokyo, Hiruta, now a junior, played lacrosse during her freshman and sophomore years at Keio. When she decided to attend Michigan State for this year, she was excited to continue playing.
But unlike most of her new teammates at MSU, Hiruta didn’t begin playing untilrecently. Her lacrosse career began in her freshman year at Keio.
“In Japan, there aren’t that many high schools that have lacrosse teams,” Hiruta said.“Most of my teammates started playing in college too.”
Hiruta was born in Yokohama, Japan before moving to Irvine, California when she was six months old. Then at 13, Hiruta and her family moved back to Japan.
Growing up in Irvine and Yokohama, Hiruta’s life never included organized sports.
“I learned about (lacrosse) in California during physical education but only played for fun,” said Hiruta. “In high school I was in the music club and played the cello, but never played sports. So playing for the first time at Keio was hard for me. Practice was five days a week for four hours every day. It was hard to adjust and to keep up.”
Hiruta added that not many people, including her, lived on campus. Instead, everyone commuted to Keio. In order to make a 7 a.m. practice, Hiruta had to be up by 4 a.m. and out the door by 5 a.m. to catch a train that would bring her to campus.
Yet the early hours and long practices never affected Shoko Hiruta as she completed her freshman and sophomore years playing at Keio University. During that time, Keio reached as high as No. 4 in the country last year and No. 1 two years ago.
Coming to East Lansing
When Hiruta was traveling to Michigan State University from Japan for her studyabroad, the transition for her was going to be easier than for most international students.
After all, she had lived in the United States for nearly 13 years.
“I wasn’t really worried about my language,” said Hiruta. “Even though I knew some problems would occur, I thought that I would be able to overcome it. But, it was the first time living by myself so I was worried at the same time.”
Nonetheless, the language barrier and living alone were not the only obstacles that Hiruta had to overcome. Some of the rules for lacrosse in the U.S. were different than those in Japan.
According to Hiruta, one of the different rules was in Japan there are eight players around the circle at midfield for the opening draw. Meanwhile, there are only four in the U.S.
Also, in Japan, the defense cannot pass the ball to goalie while trying to clear the ball if the goalie is in the crease. But, this is allowed in U.S. rules.
Although some rule changes was a minor challenge to learn, Hiruta found that there were some differences in the style and communication of the game play that took some getting used to.
“The communication style is different,” Hiruta said. “At first, I thought whenever I was saying an opinion on anything, I kind of felt bad if it would hurt others’ feelings.”
“Here (in the U.S.) you really have to say what you think and what you feel. In Japan, even if you don’t say anything, people can interpret your body language. It made me feel like communication is really important in team sports.”
Head coach Greg Normand was confident there wouldn’t be an issue for Hiruta to be able to play for his team.
“Kids are kids and the language barrier wasn’t a problem,” said Normand. “The culture was different and it took her a little while to understand what I said . . . but she’s an amazing young woman.”
It was captain Helen Young’s first experience with an international teammate. Shethought it was a great experience.
As a captain, Young said she talks more often than most of her teammates. She feels Hiruta didn’t understand something being taught about the game, she would take her to the side to talk to discuss things.
Young thinks there’s a learning curve for all rookies, from the U.S. or abroad, but that didn’t stop Hiruta.
“Her persistence and her ability to adapt and willingness to learn was so impressive,” said Young. The communication still wasn’t perfect. It’s already stressful with just school and to stick with a college sport through all of that for a whole year and be positive is very impressive to me. She improved so much and if she can do that, I feel like there’s so many other things that I can do.”
Normand believes that the ability to play lacrosse crosses all nationalities.
“I was an offensive coordinator for Team England,” said Normand. “I’ve coachedabroad. There’s no advice, I know it sounds crazy, but pick something you like and be who you are.”
After her year overseas, Hiruta is an advocate of this advice. She said it was definitely worth it to study abroad at MSU and to play lacrosse at the same time. Hiruta feels like she can take what she has learned and make her game better when she returns to Japan.
“It changed my view of how lacrosse should be played and the whole lacrosse culture," she said. "It really made me want to come back some day.”