Multi-dimensional talent brings versatility to LBSU men’s water polo team
By Matthew Gozzip Athletics Editor
A mysterious sea creature is silently surveying the pool, waiting for the perfect time to strike. The water ripples as he glides side to side, an uncannily quick movement for the usually hard charging predator. He is a cunning individual: a happy-go-lucky human on land but an aspiring Atlantean in the water. The eyes of his opponents may be directed on him but their hearts are secretly sinking in their chests.
SPLASH! A lightning bolt erupts from below the water’s surface, immediately creating a stunning set of white wave. The mysterious creature emerges from the chaos, palming a golden ball in the air as he extends his body to heavens. If you squint hard enough, it appears to be Neptune holding a trident. Jacob Fujioka is a myth come to life.
Fujioka, 21, is a rising water polo phenom that has arrived seemingly from nowhere to capture the imaginations of his fans and foes alike. The details of Fujioka’s ascent to water polo stardom are not very well documented. Around six years ago, Fujioka picked up a water polo on a whim even though he was interested in other sports. After playing for little over a year, his high school deemed him a mercurial talent, a natural with a bright future in the game.
“I always felt comfortable in the water,” says Fujioka. “During my sophomore year, the water polo coach told me I could go to college [for playing water polo]. I wasn’t going to grow anymore and I knew what I was good at. I kept getting better and better.”
Fujioka has not played water polo for long but he has quickly become become an effective utility for a Long Beach State team that has climbed all the way up to number six on the national rankings. LBSU had experienced a string of up-and-down seasons prior to Fujioka’s insertion into the starting lineup but now they are well on their way to being in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country.
Fujioka credits a redshirt season and a methodical approach to training this past summer for his personal growth and the team’s overall improvement.
“Redshirting was really helpful,” said Fujioka. “ I was still getting to know the coach and players since I was coming from high school. That one year sorta helped me out. The players back then were a really good team and I wasn’t prepared yet. Last year we were a super young team and now we have grown from there. We have been training a lot.”
One of the moe unique training experiences Fujioka and his teammates had this past summer was a series of training scrimmages against the national teams from the US and from Japan. The two squads needed a tune up before they went to Rio and decided that The Beach were worthy adversaries.
Fujioka noted that LBSU got “blown out” but it ultimately was a great learning experience that helped the team realize their weaknesses and how they could improve them.
The Beach currently holds a 9-5 record but the losses were close contests against the top-ranked teams in the nation, excluding a big loss to Cal this past weekend. Fujioka has brought an added dimension to the LBSU team that many other players do not have. Even though he has scored 11 goals this season, the real value of Fujioka’s game is centered around a different kind of skill: his passing.
“If I have open shots I’ll take them but I really like setting up my teammates,,” said Fujioka. “I do get a lot of opportunities to shoot. Some days they go in, some days thet. No matter how well I’m shooting, I’m finding the open man first. I guess I’m different than most players because I look for the extra pass.”
This kind of team-first mentality has a lot to do with Fujioka’s abilities that he acquired from basketball, his first love.
“Playing utility correlated with me playing basketball,” said Fujioka. “I played point guard and I saw the court very well. My water polo coach noticed this and helped me find utility. I guess I’m different than most players because I look for the extra pass. Playing basketball really helped widen my vision. Setting up people, ball fakes, quick passes to a shot, I usually look to handle the ball.”
Fujioka was actually a star basketball player and captain at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego before he ultimately decided to take up water polo because of a schedule clash between the two sports. He was very passionate about basketball but there was something about water polo that made him choose the sport moving forward.
“I am naturally drawn to playing in the water,” Fujioka said. “ Ever since I was a kid I’ve been trying to be in the pool or the ocean. It’s like some Aquaman stuff.”
Many players are more physically talented and experienced than Fujioka but not many people have his unique skill set. Combining his uncanny court vision with his natural love for the water, the young disciple of Neptune has an immeasurable amount of potential. Most inhabitants of the ocean try to avoid the sight of nets. For Fujioka, that’s all he aims for nowadays.