"We had a conversation, telling her that another Division-I program would love to have her. She started crying and said, 'No, I only want to go to Butler.'" -Elise Edwards, Butler goalkeeping coach
For years, Japanese soccer prospect Serina Kashimoto dreamt of playing in the United States. And after visiting Butler University in February of 2011, the 18-year-old's sights narrowed sharply on someday playing for the Bulldogs.
Kashimoto served as the starting center back and captain for Japan's national team during the 2011 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, helping the squad to a runner-up finish.
Even before the team's remarkable run in tournament play, Butler goalkeeping coach Elise Edwards was informed by Hiro Watanabe, a good friend and soccer coach at Fujieda Junshin High School in Toyko, of a special soccer player who sought to play in the United States.
Edwards, who had played and coached in Japan during the 1990s, relayed the information to Butler head coach Tari St. John.
After flying to Florida to watch Kashimoto compete for the U-17 team, St. John and her coaching staff made the highly-touted center back a top recruiting priority.
"From a tactical level, she looks like a 28-year-old pro," St. John said of Kashimoto. "As a center back, you always look for that leadership and being able to organize and communicate. She showed non-stop communication."
The interest was mutual.
"Butler is a small school," Kashimoto said. "I thought that would be good for me. My mother was nervous about me going to school in America, but once we visited Butler, her mind was changed."
Like her mother's, Kashimoto's mind was made up. She would accept a scholarship to attend Butler University and would join the women's soccer team, which was coming off a historic season, having recently been crowned regular season Horizon League co-champion.
However, in addition to the 9,000 miles between Indianapolis and her hometown, one thing stood between Kashimoto and her dream of playing soccer in the U.S.
Butler's strict academic standards required a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam score higher than most universities before the school would admit an international athlete.
Needing a score of 79, Kashimoto tried and retried the exam, each time falling just short.
"There were moments when it was really disheartening," Edwards said. "It wasn't clear, even at the very end, that things were going to work."
Three weeks after her official visit to Butler, Kashimoto travelled to Bloomington, Ind., to begin studying at an English language school facilitated by Indiana University, in an attempt to improve her TOEFL test score. After eight months in Bloomington, she returned home, where she got a tutor and continued to study.
It was then that St. John and Edwards presented Kashimoto with a realistic, but less-than-ideal alternative.
"I probably had three conversations with her, telling her, 'Serina, you can come play in the States. I can help you find a school, but it won't be Butler,'" St. John said.
Each time, Kashimoto refused.
"No, I want to play at Butler," she said. "I don't want to play anywhere else."
Reaching a compromise, Kashimoto enrolled at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill., where she played soccer and made the honors list with a 3.83 GPA, all while continuing to study for the TOEFL exam.
Finally, nearly two years after deciding to attend Butler, Kashimoto got the score she had been hoping for. She would transfer from Lewis and Clark CC and begin classes at Butler on January 14, 2013.
"It felt so great," Kashimoto said.
Upon receiving the news, Kashimoto's new coaches and teammates were overcome with joy and relief.
"It's amazing that she did it," junior defender Ali Backscheider said. "Roles reversed, I don't know if I could have done that. It's really impressive."
Backscheider and the rest of the team had first met Kashimoto at a group outing in 2011. Finally, they would be sharing the pitch together.
"Right off the bat, we all thought she was super sweet and really nice," Backscheider said of her first meeting with Kashimoto. "She didn't know much English back then, but you could just tell she was a really good person."
"The things she does well—manipulating a ball, maneuvering in tight spaces while keeping possession and striking a ball over distance with precision—will help us do the things we are already trying to do," St. John said. "She would be a probable starter at center back, but, right now, I think she will be more valuable further up the field."
Kashimoto, who was granted a medical redshirt at Lewis and Clark CC, will have four years of eligibility at Butler and will become the program's first ever player from outside North America.
Listed at a generous 5-foot-4-inches tall, the 20-year-old is ready to prove that, despite her small physique, she possesses enormous talent.
"I am very excited about experiencing American-style soccer against taller players," Kashimoto said with a grin.
-- by Lance Rinker '13