The Louisville freshman attacker has been called a pure goal scorer — a reputation she hopes to uphold with the lofty goals she carries.
“I want to win the championship,” Nakazawa said through Louisville associate athletic trainer Yoshi Saito, who serves as an interpreter. “And I want to give the Japanese young players an impressive role model.”
Nakazawa has set the bar high with early success while taking on the challenge of transitioning to a new country, speaking a new language and facing a new level of lacrosse. She’s done it all quicker than anyone could have foreseen. She is the first Japanese player to play at a Power 5 school.
“I thought the first year would just be to fill in and get it and progress,” Louisville coach Scott Teeter said. “In fall ball, just through her teammates, I got, ‘She’s going to start right away.’”
Nakazawa is tied for fifth on the Cardinals with fellow freshman Bella Karstien with 12 points through 11 games, her last two coming in Louisville’s 13-9 win at Virginia Tech on Saturday. Barely five minutes into the game, Nakazawa started to fade out toward the 8-meter arc as the ball reversed but suddenly turned and cut down the middle before taking a feed and whipping in a left-handed shot for a 3-0 lead. Closing in on the midway point of the second half, this time Nakazawa curled into the middle from the left side, caught a quick pass and scored right-handed.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to contribute in my freshman year, but I had a mindset that was what my goal was going to be from the get-go,” Nakazawa said. “I wanted to come here and work my tail off and be able to contribute to the team from my freshman year. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but that was my mindset coming into the University of Louisville.”
Ally Hall had five goals, Caroline Blalock had three goals and two assists and Hannah Morris had two goals for the first win in the ACC for the Cardinals since April 22, 2017. It was their first conference victory since Teeter took over the program four years ago. Louisville looks to make it two ACC wins in a row when it hosts Duke Thursday night.
“With Kokoro overachieving or exceeding all my expectations early on, it opens up and makes the sky the limit a little more.”
Teeter previously had a stronghold on the Canadian market early in his coaching career at Canisius, and he sees the world lacrosse scene opening up with Nakazawa just one sign of the growth of the game and its future possibilities.
“You want to be first at it,” Teeter said. “You’re getting the advantage by taking a risk or making a decision, and if it pays off, you’re going to reap the benefits of it. With Kokoro overachieving or exceeding all my expectations early on, it opens up and makes the sky the limit a little more.”
As a young girl in Yokohama, Nakazawa could often be found kicking a soccer ball in the park with her father, Yuji Nakazawa, one of Japan’s most famous men’s soccer players and a former national team captain. But Kokoro Nakazawa and her younger sister Negai have found their passions on a different field.
“He respects what I want to do and he supports me a lot,” Nakazawa said. “Also, he is into lacrosse, and he is coaching lacrosse at my high school now.”
Nakazawa was in middle school when she first took up lacrosse. She was fortunate to attend a middle school in Japan that had lacrosse — very few do — and then to continue at Nihon University Senior High in Machida, Japan, where she was MVP and led the team to three championships.
“I really started thinking about playing overseas when I was in eighth or ninth grade,” Nakazawa said. “It became more of a reality when I was selected to Team Japan. That exposed me to different teams internationally, but I had envisioned my entire playing career of playing overseas.”
Nakazawa caught the attention of Teeter, the Team Canada coach at the 2019 U19 World Cup, when his team faced Japan in an exhibition. Nakazawa was recognized as a top talent when she was selected to the All-World Team. Teeter didn’t start seriously consider asking Nakazawa about her interest in college lacrosse until he saw her again when he traveled to Japan for an exhibition and clinic as a coach with the WPLL All-Star team. Nakazawa came on an official visit to Louisville in February 2020, which opened her eyes to the level of Division I play and served to make her work harder in preparation for the big jump.
“It’s going to start happening all over,” Teeter said. “It’s not just Australia or England that has their top player if they want to come over. You’re going to see a lot more countries now that coaches are seeing them. It did help with the championship being in Canada, and the senior one being in Towson next summer will help because of the exposure. At the senior one, if there’s a 15-16-year-old playing there, I’m sure the college coaches are going to notice.”
Nakazawa was more comfortable with the idea of playing at a U.S. college after her official visit, and through the fall, she began to adjust to the differences.
“I’ve been very impressed with the resources and the game of lacrosse overall in the United States,” Nakazawa said. “The communication has been a challenging part of it. That’s probably one of the biggest obstacles that I face, but I go out of my way to communicate with the coaching staff and my teammates to shrink the gap. That’s the hardest adjustment that I’ve faced.”
English is taught in Japan starting in middle school, but Saito compared it to Spanish being taught in the United States at that level. Nakazawa reads and writes English fine and nods along understanding questions asked of her, but she hadn’t been asked to speak English until arriving at Louisville. She can answer in English but is more comfortable making sure she gets it correct through an interpreter like Saito. Teeter empathizes after growing up in Canada reading and writing French as his second language but not speaking it well. Nakazawa is a visual learner who picks up things quickly just by watching.
“I’ve been very pleased with how I’ve been treated by my teammates and coaching staff,” Nakazawa said. “Specifically as far as the communication, they double- and triple-check on the specific plays and specific skills. They always make sure that I understand what Coach Teeter is trying to say from a player’s perspective. That’s been helping a lot. They’re very specific to the instructions, especially upperclassmen that share the same position. They’ve been very instructive. They’ve been very helpful.”
With rising awareness of anti-Asian racism in the U.S., Nakazawa’s treatment has been especially important to her team and the school. She lived with Norika Konno, a native of Japan on the Louisville women’s basketball team, in the first semester, and now lives with members of the women’s soccer team this semester. Louisville has made sure that she feels supported.
“Her and I have had some conversations through Yoshi with what has been happening in the U.S.,” Teeter said. “She’s aware of the situation. She has never felt threatened here and she knows the outlets if she did – whether it’s Yoshi or myself or her teammates. She relies on her roommates and teammates for that.”
The support has allowed Nakazawa to focus on adjusting to the other challenges of school and playing Division I lacrosse. She’s found her role quicker on the field than anticipated, something that Teeter credits to her drive and work ethic. She is a regular presence at Louisville’s dedicated women’s lacrosse facility, and her example has been contagious. It has teammates joining her to work out, a big step as Louisville focuses on player development in its program rebuild.
“Overall, the game of lacrosse is totally different, individual skills, techniques, from stick skills to shooting accuracy to physicality,” Nakazawa said. “The body size is different. That leads to the physicality in the game. I’m experiencing a lot more harder checks and stick checks and how the game processes is different. I’m very impressed with the level of the game being so different.”