|During Japan's successful campaign to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics, "Megu-Kana" fever swept the country. The two players at the centre of all the attention were Megumi Kurihara and Kana Oyama -- both young, both tall and both dynamic players at the forefront of an exciting new generation of volleyball talent.
But when Japan's Athens Olympics ended at the quarter-final stage with a defeat to China, so, too, did the "Megu-Kana" combo...at least for a while.
But now, after injuries and unavailability kept them apart for the whole of 2005, Kurihara and Oyama are back together on the national squad at the start of World Championships year.
Not that Japan are a "two-woman show", and they proved this last season under head coach Shoichi Yanagimoto. In the absence of Kurihara for the entire season, and for Oyama for a large part of it, some new faces rose to the challenge and caught the eye with a series of dazzling performances.
Kaoru Sugayama, nicknamed "Kaoru Hime" (or Princess Kaoru) by the Japanese sports media, is an incredible athlete. Standing just 1.69 metres, the 27-year-old fireball continues to astound team-mates and rivals alike with her spectacular leaps and spikes. Then there's her team-mate at the V.League club JT Marvelous, Makiko Horai, who was a revelation as a middle blocker.
Add to these the Athens Olympic quartet of Yoshie Takeshita, the captain and setter, plus Miyuki Takahashi, who spent last season in Italy with Vicenza, Sachiko Sugiyama and Saori Kimura, who is still only 19, and it's plain to see that head coach Yanagimoto is assembling a strong squad.
Last season, Japan finished fifth of six teams in the World Grand Prix Final Round and the World Grand Champions Cup, both held in Japan, and although Yanagimoto was not satisfied with the result, he felt a strong base had been laid for the future.
"Last year we had many small players, and we proved that our defence and our speed was among the best in the world," he said.
"That provided us with a base to build on, and this year we are looking to add more height and power.
"The first priority is to work on our fundamental skills and precision; the second is combinations for the offence."
With Takahashi back from her European experience, and with Kurihara, Oyama and Kimura all available for the start of the international season, Japan are hoping to make big progress this year.
The squad of 18 for the first training camp included five newcomers in Midori Takahashi, Akiko Ino, Masayo Eguchi, Shuka Oyama and Yuki Ishikawa.
"It might be risky, but I will try to give the young players as much experience as possible. It's a good chance for them to play," said Yanagimoto.
"Last year I felt the team was just marking time. This year we have to build some momentum."
2003 World Grand Prix 2003 ... 9th
2003 Asian Championship (Vietnam) ... 2nd
2003 The World Cup ’03 (Japan) ... 5th
2004 World Grand Prix 2004 ... 9th
2004 Olympic Games (Athens) ... 5th
2005 World Grand Prix 2005 ... 5th
2005 Asian Championship (China) ... 3rd
Yanagimoto takes Japan forward
Volleyball is more than a sport to Shoichi Yanagimoto. It's his life.
A promising setter in high school, Yanagimoto won two national high school titles before pursuing a career as a volleyball player with New Nippon Steel, one of the major companies in Japan.
He was selected for Japan's national squad and achieved remarkable results: first place at the Asian Games in Iran in 1974; third at the World Championships in Mexico in 1974, and fourth at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
For four seasons, from 1980 to 1984, Yanagimoto held two roles at New Nippon Steel -- head coach and setter -- and led his squad to victory in the Japan League, the nation's premier league at the time. He was named Best Coach and Best Six member in 1982.
In 1985 he was invited to coach the Thai men's national team, and, despite communication difficulties and lack of preparation time, he steered them to the gold medal at the South East Asian Games, a regional Olympics.
The following year, 1986, Yanagimoto was asked to be involved in the founding of a new team, Nisshin Steel, and to coach them, so he resumed his career in Japan. Needless to say, Nisshin Steel soon won promotion to the first division, the V.League, and his reputation as a coach was further enhanced.
The year 1997 was the turning point in his volleyball career. Yanagimoto took over the women's company team Toyobo Orchis, and won the V.League twice in five seasons (1998 and 2000). However, in 2002, despite being one of the top teams, the owners closed the volleyball club due to the economic recession. Hitachi, Odakyu and Unitika did the same during a dark period for Japanese company sports teams.
In the spring of 2003, Yanagimoto was appointed head coach of Japan's women's team. He held his first selection camp in March and within eight months his squad had made a remarkable improvement to finish fifth in the World Cup in November.
Qualification for the 2004 Olympic Games was secured the following year, and Japan reached the quarter-finals in Athens before losing to China, the eventual gold medal winners.
Yanagimoto has introduced youth, height and power into the squad with the likes of Kana Oyama, Megumi Kurihara and Saori Kimura, and 17-year-old high school student Maiko Kano is also tipped to make her mark in the near future.
Looking ahead to the World Grand Prix, Yanagimoto said: "This year it will be a curtain-raiser for the World Championships in Japan, and gives us the opportunity to face some strong opponents such as Brazil, Cuba and Italy.
"Every game will be tough, but our goal is to improve on last season's fifth-place finish at the World Grand Prix Final Round."