Boys Soccer
Sato embracing leadership role for Lumberjacks

Motoki Sato is not one to back down from a challenge. Not in the classroom and certainly not on the pitch.

And a challenge is just what Sato — a 2018 Kaiser High School graduate — has been tasked with this spring as a captain for the Humboldt State University men's soccer team; a team without a season to play.

After Humboldt State — a Division-II school and member of the California Collegiate Athletic Association — saw its fall season canceled, what followed was an exodus of players expected to lead the way for the group.

"As a result of COVID, all of our seniors except for one have decided not to come back and play their senior year, which has kind of left a hole in our program, especially as it relates to upperclassmen leadership," Lumberjacks coach Fred Jungemann said by phone Wednesday afternoon.

Sato, a 5-foot-10, 145-pound midfielder, has been one of those players who have helped to fill that void.

"One hundred percent. Motoki, along with the other guys that stepped up, have really helped minimized that impact and are picking up the reins and taking over the team to help us get through this difficult year," Jungemann said. "He's really stepped into the leadership role, along with a couple other guys on our team who are all dealing with the difficulties and adversities present by the situation about as well as we could have imagined or hoped for."

Although Sato was initially surprised by his former teammates' decisions to leave the team, he quickly sprung into action as a leader amongst those who remained.

"I was hoping we'd still play through even the spring and maybe next fall, but a lot of them made the decision and it came a lot quicker than I thought. I thought I would have more time to play with those older guys, but we started practicing and realized that there were no seniors except for one, so definitely I think the rest of the juniors definitely noted that and definitely knew the responsibility that we had, especially to the newer members of the team," Sato said. "I think we took on the responsibility to definitely try and do our best, given the circumstances, and I'm definitely proud of the guys right now."

Instead of a typical season, Humboldt State — which posted an 8-9 record (4-8 CCAA) in 2019 — has been limited to a whole lot of practice. Even then, it has been a struggle.

"Ever since COVID we obviously were in shock and then we didn't know when we would even be able to play or practice even just with the whole team, so it was a long process of trying to do everything on our own and trying to stay motivated. In the fall we couldn't play, but we did train — that was big," Sato said.

With the fluidity of the situation ever-changing, there was hope that a spring season would materialize for the Lumberjacks.

"We just looked forward to the spring and so we tried to stay as fit as we could because of the possibility of maybe playing games. We've been practicing, sometimes we had to do it in pods in the beginning, which makes it tough sometimes, but we started playing with the whole team not too long ago," he added.

But last weekend, finally, Humboldt State was able to play a couple of games. And even came out with a couple of wins, even though Monday's 5-0 victory over Holy Names was technically an exhibition.

Sato scored a pair of unassisted goals in the win.

"That was really fun," he said.

The Lumberjacks' other game over the weekend was a 3-1 win over Dominican Sunday afternoon.

"This weekend was definitely a grind, our first two games and our first game in over a year and a half," Sato noted. "We had to play back-to-back games with just 18 guys, so we're definitely proud that we managed to pull wins out of both games, but our main focus, honestly, was to go out there and have fun, enjoy the moment, be grateful that we can play again because we're one of the few teams that can. It was a lot of fun."

The 16-month layoff between games — and everything that transpired in between them — has certainly put things into perspective for Sato and his teammates.

"The process has been difficult, but it's all part of the experience and everyone is going through it right now and so we're lucky that we're starting to play again," Sato said. "A lot of other schools can't play, so we're definitely grateful that we can practice and even play."

Humboldt State currently doesn't have any more games officially listed on its schedule for this spring, but there are plans to play a few more contests in April — much to the delight of Sato.

"I think what Humboldt has done for us in terms of being able to go back and play is amazing and I definitely would like to thank the administration and everyone involved to get us back to playing," Sato expressed. "We're the only team in our whole conference that is able to play, so I think all the credit goes to them for that; that's a big accomplishment."

Sato achieved his own big accomplishment last December, when he was bestowed with the CCAA's Championship Scholar-Athlete Award for men's soccer, which recognizes the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average.

He became just the fourth Lumberjack to earn the award and first men's soccer players from the school to receive the honor.

"I was pretty shocked," said Sato, a two-time CCAA All-Academic Team selection and Humboldt State Presidential Scholar.

"I definitely try my hardest in school. I don't take it lightly, I take it very seriously and I guess this was a little reminder and accomplishment of what I've done at least in the past few years academically and it motivated me definitely to keep going. I'm definitely grateful for the award and will try to strive for it again next year," he added.

There's no question in his mind where his diligence in the classroom comes from.

"Definitely my parents," Sato stated.

Dad, Masahiro, and mom, Shinogu, instilled the importance of a solid education in their son at a young age.

"Ever since I was young, grades were always important. It was definitely pushed, but not to the point where I'm getting all annoyed and I think it's something I personally understood what they were trying to get at and even in high school I strived to get as high of a grade as I can and in college I just kept going and kept trying my best and I definitely thank my parents for that," said Sato, who is on track to graduate next spring with a degree in kinesiology.

The long-term goal is to become an athletic trainer, Sato noted. After gaining a bachelor's degree, he will turn his sights to a graduate school. It's not always easy to balance the academic demands with playing collegiate soccer, but Sato has found a routine that works for him.

"It's definitely tough. It's definitely not easy, especially being a college athlete," he said. "There's a lot of nights where you're awake even though you want to be sleeping — and probably should be sleeping — a lot of studying, but it's all about time management and discipline. Personally, I try to keep an organized schedule of what I need to complete in the week and try to plan my days and weeks accordingly with practice. I think there's always time in the day to set aside for soccer and your education and your social life and I think that balance is key and it's something I'll keep working on and hopefully I'll master it by the time I graduate."

Sato has also been a member of the school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for the past two years. His role on Jungemann's team has grown over that time.

"Motoki has been a huge part of our program basically since day one. He's grown and developed as a player, he's obviously a great student — which has gotten him some very big awards — he's a leader on and off the field for us and he leads by example through his effort and work rate on a daily basis. I can't overstate how big of an impact he's had on our program," Jungemann said.

Sato has nothing but good things to say about the team, school and surrounding town of Arcata — located about 100 miles south of the Oregon-California border and some 280 miles north of San Francisco.

"It's beautiful. We got the redwoods right on campus — you can literally go hike right behind campus in redwoods — and then you've got the beach 10 minutes away. It's a little different from Hawaii, but it's still nice," Sato said Sato. "The whole experience has been great. I mean, ever since my freshman year I've been loving it. I've really embraced the culture, the team, the school and the area. I've grown to really have a soft spot for Humboldt."

Sato played in 12 games, logged 228 minutes and recorded one shot on goal as a freshman in 2018. The following season he played in 16 games, while making 14 starts, logged 1,100 minutes and recorded two shots on goal with two assists.

"In 2019 he was one of our most consistent players and if we had a season in 2020, I would have expected the same, but in our two most recent games last week, he was killer," Jungemann said of Sato, a holding-mid. "He has just taken his game to another level, which is exciting considering he still has two years left for us."

But while Sato's progress has been measured on the pitch, off the field he hasn't changed much.

"He has really amazing character, a super good mentality and he's just an all-around good person, which was as much a reason that we were interested in him as his ability to play soccer. He was a very good player in club and he was a captain and a leader on his club team as well, so a lot of the traits that he's exhibited here are things that we saw in him when we recruited him, not just as a soccer player but also as a person," Jungemann detailed.

Sato was a standout during his prep days at Kaiser as well. As a junior he earned All-OIA East Second Team recognition and helped the Cougars reach the Division I state final. The 2-1 loss to Punahou is one of Sato's few regrets looking back on high school. Overall, however, it was a most positive experience, he expressed.

"That was a really fun four years for me," said Sato, who started all four years on the Kaiser varsity team. "Ever since I was a freshman luckily I was fortunate enough to be on varsity and start and I appreciate the coaching staff and my teammates and the relationships that I build. We had some quality time and a lot of moments — we should have won the state championship, that's one thing I would have wanted — but other than that it was a great time in those four years and it definitely encouraged me and sparked a passion for soccer, for sure."

As a high school senior, Sato was picked to the All-OIA East First Team and also earn a spot on the All-Hawaii Second Team. But beyond his on-the-field accolades, his time in college has opened his eyes to larger issues, including the recent wave of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the nation.

"It's definitely devastating to see," Sato chimed in. "Especially now with social media, everything that happens we see immediately and I think the awareness and this topic being spread is an eye-opener and I mean, it's really just heartbreaking to see every single time. Luckily for me I haven't experienced anything like that here, but for other people in other areas it's definitely different."

The issue has made Sato even more appreciative of the fact that he can call Hawaii his home.

"I take a lot of pride in that, especially because up here there's not many people from Hawaii. I was born and raised there and I love my home," he proclaimed. "Everything that I learned growing up there, I apply every day here."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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