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Takiguchi, Hilltoppers overcome different obstacles to become winners

The pieces were coming together for the Marshall girls basketball team. The Lake Superior Conference's second-leading scorer, Laurelyn Keener, was in place and primed for a breakout year. Star-in-the-making Rachel Waterhouse looked ready to ascen...

The pieces were coming together for the Marshall girls basketball team. The Lake Superior Conference's second-leading scorer, Laurelyn Keener, was in place and primed for a breakout year. Star-in-the-making Rachel Waterhouse looked ready to ascend into her new role of prominence. Marie Carlson, Katie Lozano, Rachel Rivard and Becca Rubenfeld were coming into their own as the gritty defensive backbone of the Hilltoppers. Nearly everything was in place for a successful season, but there was something missing.
Across the globe, in Japan, there was something missing for Tomomi Takiguchi as well.
The dynamic little point guard was toiling away at intense seven-day-a-week basketball practices that were honing her game, but dousing her spirit.
"My basketball in Japan was very serious. I couldn't smile," said Takiguchi, who was slapped by her Japanese coaches for turnovers, said Marshall head coach Dave Homstad.
Since the diminutive foreign exchange student came to Marshall, she has been smiling much more on the court, as have her teammates Keener and Waterhouse, who have been the prime beneficiaries of Takiguchi's laser-like passes.
"We always have to pay attention or else we'll get a ball in the face," said Waterhouse, who is the conference's third-leading scorer right behind Keener.
It's been an adjustment for each of the Hilltoppers, but having the speedy Takiguchi on the court has clearly been a benefit.
"I had to get used to playing with her all the time," said Keener. "Now I'm always looking for her. Otherwise she yells at me."
Homstad deserves much of the credit for molding the diverse group of girls into the close-knit team that it clearly is now. His philosophy has been simply to put each girl in a position to succeed, which is precisely what has happened.
Takiguchi has clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play free of pressure and intimidation, leading the Hilltoppers with 7.8 assists and 2.9 steals per game. But Takiguchi's basketball past wasn't an entirely negative experience. Takiguchi has become renowned across the Up North area for her slick passing skills that she developed as a youngster in Japan.
"I've played ever since I was little," said Takiguchi. "I got a strong shoulder from playing dodge ball everyday."
Now she's here, using that rocket arm to deliver length-of-the-court passes to her teammates.
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Don't see a passing lane? Simply put, Takiguchi will find it, and if it's not there, she'll make one. But Takiguchi isn't just a passer, as exemplified by her 20-point performance in the Section 7A semi-finals against Cook. Her game is multi-dimensional and quick, which is a style she learned in her homeland.
"She was staying at my house one night when her host parents were gone, and she brought over this tape of a game in Japan. They (Takiguchi's team) took third place in the tournament, and this was the first and second-place teams playing. The play is so much faster there," said Waterhouse. "They were short people, but they were all really fast."
Takiguchi laughed at the assessment. She doesn't consider herself to be that fast, but by Minnesota high school standards she is. As far as height goes, Takiguchi has surprisingly found the difference to be more beneficial than detrimental to her game.
"Everyone is tall here, so it's easy to pass to them," says Takiguchi.
It's been a symbiotic relationship for Takiguchi and the 'Toppers, who have completed each other's puzzle. Takiguchi has helped Marshall blossom into a multi-talented winning team, and Marshall has made Takiguchi feel like she can finally smile on the court.
What was the winning formula for Marshall? It depends on whom you ask.
"We have to play our style," said Keener.
"We need to keep working together," said Waterhouse.
"We need to smile," said Takiguchi.

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