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Kent Taikai 2015 - The Bernice Special!

Photo courtesy of A. Melton
A couple of weekends ago we packed up and headed over to compete in the 19th Annual Kent Taikai.  This one is always one of my favorites, as I feel the atmosphere is very local and laid back.  I've told people before, for me, it feels like getting together with old friends, making new friends, hanging out and occasionally beating up on each other as we go through the matches together.  This year was no different and did not disappoint on the friends, the competition or the camaraderie.  We pulled up the morning of the tournament, helped set up a bit, changed and warmed up and got ready for a day of kendo.  There were ten of us total that were competing, across almost every division that they had this year (excluding the division for younger kids).  I not only was able to compete, but this year I also acted as shinpan, and was able to help in judging a lot of the matches for the kids and the kyu divisions before competing myself.  I have to say, shinpan work is tough!  But it's also very rewarding.  Having to focus not just on one other person, but on two, all while moving with your team and paying attention to what they're doing.  It's definitely mentally exhausting but I'm looking forward to doing it more and becoming more proficient at it as the years go by.

Our division was the last one to go before the Senior Team division, so I had a long morning and afternoon to prepare, but the time finally came. I was the second match up in our bracket, and my opponent was none other than, in my opinion, one of the fiercest competitors in our division.  A great, highly skilled competitor and my friend, Bernice.  Might as well start out strong and keep going, right?  We had been laughing and joking before hand, but as we stepped in and took our positions it was all business.  The match started and I knew to expect quick movement, quick attacks and no quarter.  My plan was to use my height and reach advantage to even the playing field, and to that effect I think I did well.  I was able to control the distance most of the time, closing in when I was ready to strike and keeping her at bay fairly well the rest of the time, which was not easy!  My first break came when she backed up to the line and I saw an opportunity to unbalance her.  I was hoping that she'd be more worried about going out than blocking my incoming attack, so I bumped her slightly then went for hiki men.  Unfortunately she blocked my hiki men, but I was able to get her to step out, giving her one hansoku (1/2 point penalty).  We restarted the match and fought again.  At one point in the match I thought for sure she had taken my kote on a hiki kote attempt, but as she was backing up no flags went, and she was thrown off-balance by her momentum. I came flying up behind her since she was on the line, but I stopped short.  She was teetering on the line and ended up catching herself by her hand, outside of the court.  Unfortunately for her, this gave her another hansoku, giving me a full point, which I held onto until the end of the match.  It wasn't a stellar win, in my book, but a win nonetheless and I was moving to the next round.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz by Hansoku)

My next opponent was someone that I actually fought last year in our team match.  Chu, from Sno-King.  She was a young, fast shodan who was good at taking any opening she saw, so I knew I had to be aware at all times.  The match started and I pressed in immediately, aiming to control the distance and the tempo of the match.  The first few attacks came fast and furiously, from both of us, but I was able to catch her kote as she came rushing after me to take the first point.  We reset and again I pressed in, looking to take or create openings to exploit and attack.  Again, attacks and counters were flying around, and I felt that I kept the pressure on pretty well.  The final point came when I stepped in and slid my shinai to the side, and then unleashed a harai kote to take the point and the win.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)

My next opponent was C. Marsten.  He was young, he was fast and he was good.  This was my first encounter with him at a taikai, but I knew of him long before that.  And I knew I'd have to be at the top of my game to get past him.  The match started and we both took our time feeling each other out, trying to take and keep an advantage before attacking. Again, I had a slight reach advantage so I tried to utilize that, but he was very quick his his own attacks and counters when I moved in on him.  We seemed very evenly matched that day, but the first point finally came late into the match, when I stepped to the side and then came back to catch his kote.  I only had to hold out a few more seconds to take the match, but he landed a kote when I lost the distance to even the score, right before time ran out.  We were headed into overtime.  We both fought hard, each wanting that next point.  I was able to catch his kote again, though, ending the match and sending me into the semi-finals.

Final Score: 2-1 (Chris in Encho)

Only two matches left in our division, but my next opponent wasn't going to make getting to the finals easy.  My next match was against S. Day, whom I've fought on many occasions in the past, with varying outcomes.  He was quick, he had the reach advantage, and he was aggressive so I'd have to dig down deep if I wanted to win.  The match started and we both came out swinging.  Setups, attacks and counters.  I was already worn down a bit from my long match in the previous round, so I was trying to hold on and gain an advantage and end this match quickly, but my opponent had other ideas.  He ran me around the court a bit, but I was finally able to land a debana kote to take the first point when he came in for men.  We reset and I came after him again, trying to end the match early.  I was definitely feeling the exhaustion, and I was losing energy just a little more with each attack.  He was able to tie things up on me when I came in for kote late in the match.  He countered and took my men to even things up.  I knew time was running out, and I could see that he was also getting tired so I tried to find my second wind.  I knew that if I could and push him a bit I might be able to find an opening and take the match.  I tried to keep that pressure on him as much as I could, moving in with attacks of my own and letting him get out just enough to go over after him again.  At one point I moved in close and as I backed out I went for hiki kote, which found its mark.  It was a hard fight, but I emerged victorious.  I was heading to the finals.

Final Score: 2-1 (Ruiz)

This was the first time I'd been to the finals at this tournament in this division.  In years past I'd won the 0-4 Kyu and the 3-1 Kyu divisions, and teams, but never this one. I was so close, but I knew it wouldn't be easy in this last match.  I was already tired from my previous two matches and my next opponent was T. Marsten, the younger brother of one of my previous opponents.  He was young, fast, and was used to fighting at a level that I hadn't been at before.  This was going to be an uphill battle for me. I took my rest time to focus before stepping into the court with him.  If only I'd know about the marathon match I was about to have...

We bowed in and started the match.  If I could focus I could keep up with him, and I tried using my reach advantage to control the match again.  He would move in slowly and subtly, but each time I adjusted and tried to keep that distance until I was ready to strike.  He was very quick with his counters, but somehow I was able to compensate and keep myself out of danger, for the most part.  As much as I tried to keep the pressure on and attack when I felt I had an opening, he seemed to have an answer for everything I threw at him.  This continued on for the full three minutes, with not even a flag twitch either way, before time was called.  A tie; we would be going into overtime.  What came next was not just regular overtime.  No, that would be too easy for both of us.  What came next can only be what I can describe as a test of endurance.  In the semi-final and final matches time goes on until one person scores a point.  There is no judge's decision at this level.  Someone HAS to score.  It would be twelve long minutes before either of us scored and ended the match.  During that time I think our motivation to win was replaced by our stubbornness to not lose, as we both began running out of energy.  Flags were raised on both sides and waved off and it seemed that neither of us was able to get the advantage on the other.  I even stepped out of bounds!  The end finally came when I squared up and decided to go for men.  I knew that he would go for kote, but at this point I was trusting in my men being the stronger attack.  I stepped in and went for it...and he went for kote just like I knew he would.  Both attacks landed, but his was just a split second quicker.  The flags went, he had won.  I know that I was relieved it was finally over, even though I didn't win.  The exhaustion had set in long ago, I was fighting on fumes, and I think he felt the same way.  It was a good match, and we both gave it our all so I wasn't disappointed at all.

Final Score: 1-0 (T. Marsten in Encho)

I'd have little time to recover, as Senior Teams were quickly starting.  I gathered up with my team and gave a short pep talk before we took the court against our first opponent, Cascade.  I was first out on my team (senpo) and was hoping that I was recovered enough from that marathon final match to do some good here in teams.  My opponent was Yamauchi, another young fast shodan.  I'd seen him before so was somewhat familiar with his kendo, but this was the first time I'd actually faced him.  We started and I moved in, keeping the pressure on while trying to find and create openings.  He was quick and had a lot of skill, that was for sure, but I had the experience edge and tried to use that to my advantage.  We ran each other around the court well, and I had a few close calls with him where I thought for sure he'd taken a point on me, but the lack of flags kept us fighting through the match.  It ended in a tie.  I hadn't been able to get my team off to a win to start, but I felt like I had brought the spirit out and set a high bar there.  The rest of the team picked up the tempo and soon took a couple of wins to put us into the next round.

Final Score: 0-0
Team Score: 2-0 (Spokane A)

Our next opponents were from Highline, and they'd actually won the Rose City Taikai just this past summer so I knew we were going to have a tough fight.  My opponent would be my friend O'Donnell, whose smooth kendo style is only shadowed by his smooth mustache style.  We took the court and began, and he immediately came at me with a kote-men that I thought for sure had scored.  No flags, though, so I kept my cool and turned up the aggression a bit.  I came back with a men of my own that just barely reached the target before his kote counter, and took the first point.  We reset and I came flying in again immediately and as I was there I was able to open him up and take hiki men for the last point and the win.  Finally, I had a match that was over and done with so I could have some time to recover a bit!  The rest of our team did extremely well, either neutralizing their opponents or taking wins of their own.  Because of them we were going into the next round.

Final Score: 2-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 3-0 (Spokane A)

 We were in the semi-finals, and as fate would have it we were facing UW.  They had a strong line-up, and funny enough I found myself facing off against Bernice again!  Having already fought her earlier in the day, I knew what to expect so I readied myself and stepped out onto the court.  My plan was to control the distance and keep her on her toes, moving in and out to try and disrupt her and keep her from taking her distance and the advantage she wanted. I think she knew this, too, because she was much more aggressive with me this time around, and she actually closed the distance really well a few times.  Fortunately I was able to fight her off and while I didn't score any points, neither did she.  We ended the round in a tie, and each went to watch our teammates continue the fight.  They played their parts well, and we were able to take and keep an advantage that sent us into the finals.  We'd won this division last year, time to see if we could do it again.

Final Score: 0-0
Team Score: 2-0 (Spokane A)

Our opponents this year were, fittingly, the team from Kent.  They were all very strong players, and many of them had placed high in their divisions earlier in the day.  They actually ended up changing up their team line-up right before this match, I'm guessing to try and exploit our weaknesses.  My opponent to start things off would be Frazier-Day, whose husband I'd fought earlier in the day  Just like him, I've fought her on other occasions and with varying degrees of success and failure.  I was hoping this time, for my team, I could do well and hopefully start us off with an early lead.  The match started and I knew this wasn't going to be easy.  She was a very solid player and seemed to not let me have an inch for anything.  It was a tough fight, but about halfway through the match I landed a quick hiki men to take the first point.  I did my best to keep that advantage, and was relieved when time was up and the match was called.  I'd been able to hold on and give my team an early advantage.  The rest of the team fought beautifully, doing what they do and doing it well, and we were able to secure our lead in the fourth match when my teammate took his match 2-0 with a combination of distance control and skill.  The last match was a doozy, too, with Kent taking it for their team and a vicious tsuki to start things off, but we were able to take the team victory for the second year in a row.

Final Score: 1-0 (Ruiz)
Team Score: 2-1 (Spokane A)

The day was over, and what a day it was!  Four of our members placed in their divisions, and our team had won!  Spirits were running high and I was so proud to be on that team with everyone.  We all worked really well together, encouraged each other to do well, gave it our all and came out on top.  We were all also eager to get back to the dojo and continue working hard and improving ourselves and each other.  Until next year, Kent!

Photo courtesy of W. Sinclair


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