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Luna Tsujimoto: The Last Line of Defense

WVB vs Fulleton-77
Courtesy of Evelyn-Chin Pitcairn

As a sophomore at UC Irvine, and the starting libero for the women’s volleyball team, Tsujimoto now occasionally has to miss class when the team has a road game scheduled up anywhere more than three hours away.s an adolescent, Luna Tsujimoto and her older sister Erica often had to partially miss playing in volleyball tournaments for their club team on account of attending Japanese school in the morning.

Since becoming an Anteater, Tsujimoto has been a pivotal component of the team’s success this season, and while UCI currently sits within the middle of the conference standings, Tsujimoto has her sights on helping the program claim its first Big West Conference title sometime within the next two years.

“I talked to Harlee [UCI’s freshman opposite] about this once, and we both want to win the Big West, and we want to go to the [NCAA] tournament. That’s my goal,” said Tsujimoto.

In the competitive Big West Conference featuring the likes of perennial NCAA contenders Hawai’i and Long Beach State, winning the season title is no small task. But with the guidance of first year head coach Ashlie Hain (who led the program to a NCAA berth as a player back in 2003) and a relatively young roster, there’s reason to believe Tsujimoto’s goal is not an unattainable one.

Earlier in the preseason, Tsujimoto recorded a team high 16 digs to help the team defeat then-No. 21 University of San Diego, marking UCI’s first victory against the Toros since 1992.

With an average of 3.99 digs per set, Tsujimoto is currently one of the premier liberos in the Big West Conference, currently boasting the fourth-highest average in the league leaderboards. Following a career-high 26 digs against Cal State Fullerton and a 13-dig performance against UC Riverside, the Irvine native was awarded Big West Defensive Player of the Week honors at the end of October. Tsujimoto is also a formidable force from the service line, with a deadly float serve at her disposal. Tsujimoto currently sits second on the team with 20 aces.

While Tsujimoto has been indispensable to UCI’s achievements this season, she originally had no desire to become an Anteater.

Growing up, Tsujimoto had dreamed of playing for UCI, but as is with the case with several other local talents, the school’s close proximity to home was a deterrent. Tsujimoto instead committed to Ohio State, due in part to the allure of playing at a college with a prestigious football program.

However, the program was not a good fit for Tsujimoto, and she soon began exploring her options. Her transfer to Irvine was in part facilitated by her club coach Charlie Brande, who served as both the men’s and women’s head coach and was also the Director of Volleyball during his time with the program.

“Because of her nature, she’s always been one of those players that just takes care of business, who never really complains,” said Brande. “When she’s doing her job, people really don’t notice her . . . yet, if she doesn’t do her job, then everybody notices her, because it all starts with her. I think that her temperament and her personality are really well-suited for that, and then to be able to carry that to that collegiate level with her extreme athleticism is one of her major assets at UCI.”

While traversing the hilly terrain of Ring Road on her scooter presents its own challenges, Tsujimoto is nonetheless grateful to be at UCI.

“I’m a lot happier here, I think. I play better here, I like the people here a lot, I get along with my team pretty well. [I] love them all,” said Tsujimoto. “[Ohio State], they’re doing really well and I’m very happy for them, but I’m still really glad I came over and am playing with the girls that I’m playing with right now.”

Tsujimoto’s happiness can partially be attributed to the ease in which she was able to adapt to coach Hain’s system. Being that Hain played under Brande while he was head coach at UCI, it’s no surprise that Tsujimoto sees parallels in their manners of coaching.

“I feel like [Hain] has a similar coaching style to Charlie,” said Tsujimoto. “Since I’ve been coached by him, I kind of know how she thinks, in a way. The drills that we do, I’ve done before because of Charlie.”

Tsujimoto first met Brande when she was a fifth grader, one year after her elementary school teacher introduced her to  volleyball. Seeing the game as a “more intense version of ‘don’t let the tissue fall on the floor,’” Tsujimoto developed her skills under Brande at the Orange County Volleyball Club, where she mainly played as opposite and outside hitter.

By the end of Tsujimoto’s sophomore year, Brande foresaw that she would need to develop as a libero to compete at the Division 1 level in college. With the libero position at his club already filled, Brande pushed Tsujimoto to play at the Saddleback Valley Volleyball Club, where she could gain experience in the position.

“There’s a whole different mentality when you’re passing the ball every single time than when you’re only passing the ball half the time. There’s so much continual stress that if you’re not level, if you’re not confident, then you can’t handle it,” said Brande.

Her season statistics notwithstanding, Tsujimoto’s potentially biggest contribution to the team is one that cannot be measured by numerical values. Thanks to her poised demeanor come game time, Tsujimoto can help elevate the level of play from her teammates with her presence on the court.

“She’s very calming in how she plays — as well as efficient —  and that’s important when your team is young, that you have people that keep things very calm and confident and assured,” said Brande. “And that’s what she does. She sets a tone that is competitive, yet very very calm as they pursue that.”

With two more years of play and growth left to undergo at UCI, Tsujimoto has plenty of time to help the Anteaters claim a Big West Conference title.

Fortunately for her new team, Tsujimoto won’t be missing tournaments on account of Japanese school anymore.