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July 7, 2023

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

Kendall Nakano, one of the area’s top softball players, never thought she would have a chance to represent her ethnic background in any way through softball tournaments. She also said she never thought about either going to Japan or playing for any Team Japan squads.

But now that Triple Crown Sports has been putting on an International Challenge for a third straight summer, leading up to its popular Fourth of July Fireworks and Sparkler showcase tournament every June in the Denver metropolitan area, Nakano finally has that opportunity.

“Knowing that there’s this International Challenge, it definitely opened my eyes and made me consider it,” she said. “Yes, I could have also represented Mexico or the USA. But I think those teams…they have a lot of girls on their roster, too, and they have had multiple teams in the previous years, and I think Japan only had one team.  So, I might as well go for it.”

KENDALL NAKANO with Team Japan, Nakano was born in the United States, but her father, Keith, is full Japanese. To be eligible to play in the International Challenge, you, a parent, a grandparent, or great grandparent had to have been born in the country you want to represent.


Nakano, the 2023 HMG-Community News Player of the Year and one of the area’s top hitters, remembered her Norwalk High teammate Leilani Juan and a couple of friends playing last year for Team Philippines and thought she would tryout for Team Japan. Nakano was born in the United States, but her father, Keith, is full Japanese. To be eligible to play in the International Challenge, you, a parent, a grandparent, or great grandparent had to have been born in the country you want to represent.

“Last year I wanted to tryout, and it was different because it was an online tryout instead of an in-person tryout where I show off my skills,” said Nakano. “It was interesting. Then I had to write a letter why I wanted to play; why I wanted to represent [Team Japan].

“They definitely inspired me to do it,” she later added. “But I think I just wanted to represent my culture and just get more in touch with my Japanese side.”

The week before she was to go to Colorado for last year’s TCIC, Nakano was in Kansas City June 16-19 with her 16-Under travel team, the (Norco) Wildcats Laufou/Hunter, for the Top Gun Invitational and on the second day, fractured her ankle. At that point, she knew she wouldn’t be able to play with [Team Japan].

“That was a little discouraging,” said Nakano. “But I still got the stuff which made me a little more happy.”

After last year’s TCIC, the coach sent a group text to the players that she hoped to see everyone for this year’s event. Four to six months later, the players had to tryout again, but Nakano said since she was a returner, she made the team, but not automatically. Once it was official that she made the team, it was simply putting in the work and staying disciplined with all the training.

Nakano went two for two against Team Middle East on June 23, a 19-3 victory but did not play against Team South Korea later in the day. Team Japan won that game 8-6, then completed pool play on June 24 with a 5-2 victory over Team Cuba. The head coach of Team Japan is Shannon Mortimer, who also coaches the All American Sports Academy travel team.

“They’re very sweet,” said Nakano of her teammates. “They have the same demeanor, though, just when it comes to softball. But personality-wise, they were so sweet. You could tell that they brought a little bit of where they’re from to the field, and I like that. Playing with them…they were all talented. It was quite amazing watching them play.

“She told everybody that this was just a game and if we did do bad, that is doesn’t define us as a player or a person,” Nakano later said of Mortimer. “I really took that to heart because in a few of those games I didn’t do that good, and I felt like I just wasn’t helping the team and I wasn’t producing like I should. That just reminded me that this is just one weekend, and one weekend doesn’t define me as a player or a person.”

The TCIC didn’t have an opening ceremony because of inclement weather, but Nakano did have a chance to watch some of the games involving players from Southern California from afar and even talk to them, including Banda. The other area players who represented their countries were La Mirada High’s Rebecca Eckart (18-Under Team Mexico), Gahr High’s Natalia Hill (18-Under Team Spain), Cerritos High’s Camille Lara (18-Under Team Philippines) and Gahr’s Rio Mendez (16-Under Team Puerto Rico).

Nakano has one more year of high school ball and is already looking forward to playing in next June’s TCIC, citing that the 2023 version was ‘very fun’. She added that she loves to see all the different cultures just having their own thing.

“Even when celebrating, it was just amazing, and then I have some noisemakers from Team Japan and I’m absolutely in love with them,” she said. “The one thing I will take is as much as you think you work hard, there’s always other people working harder than you. Just stay disciplined and to keep on doing what you’re doing and just be great at it. Just keep working on it; work on your craft; work on your talent, work on whatever you have in mind and don’t stop because there’s always going to be somebody who’s ahead of you.”

Nakano’s journey to the Rocky Mountain state was just another stop in what seems to be a never-ending summer for her and all other travel softball players. Nakano’s team competed in the Triple Crown Sports Zoom into June showcase tournament June 10-12 and will be a part of the USA Softball Champions Cup, another top showcase tournament, which begins on July 6 and runs through at least Sunday. Each team plays five pool play games, then it goes to a single elimination playoff format. After that, Nakano’s travel team will cap off the summer by playing in the Platinum Division of the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship.

“Sometimes it does get a little hectic,” said Nakano. “But I just like to remember that softball isn’t forever and just to enjoy this while I can because after college, I’m not really planning to do anything further [in softball].”

Nakano, whose travel team is sporting a 17-5 record in major games since May 13, is batting .490 with 25 hits, 17 runs batted in, 16 runs scored, four doubles, three home runs and has struck out twice. She does have some advice for other travel softball players who are considering playing in the TCIC.

“I just want girls to not be enclosed and not be shy to do things that they want to do,” said Nakano. “I just want them to be able to have fun, do what they want and just have a good time while they’re at it, and not get discouraged at the same time. Because I know softball can be very mentally draining. But I think it’s a good experience and it’s a good quality to have.”