Inside the Stroh Center, the lights are dimmed as the BGSU player introductions are underway. Making her start for the Falcons, wearing number 11: point guard Mari Hill.
The dark-haired, 5-foot-6-inch athlete is the shortest girl on the court. Many would consider that a disadvantage but not Hill.
In her first game as a Falcon, the junior transfer tallied nine steals, falling one shy of the school's single-game record. Hill may have been short of the achievement, but she made history just by stepping on the court. Hill is the first Japanese native to play women’s basketball in the Mid-American Conference. Hill is the latest in only a handful of Japanese nationals to have played basketball at the NCAA Division I level.
Growing up in Nagakute, Japan, Hill said she had an upbringing unlike the rest of her teammates.
“It’s just so different,” Hill said. “The food is different. The language is different. Nothing is the same.”
Hill’s father, Harry, further added to this unique upbringing. He moved to Japan in 1985 and worked as an English teacher, serving hundreds of schools over a two year period. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Yumiko, at a dojo.
The two married in 1988, and shortly after left for the United States where Hill’s father worked on Wall Street. The couple returned to Japan only two years later. Hill spent the 1990s organizing several different business projects. He returned once again to the U.S. in 1997. He finally settled in Japan in 1999 to join a marketing firm, becoming its president in 2006.
“I think that being an international family, Mari always knew there was a world beyond Japan,” Hill’s father said.
Hill grew up in an athletic family. Her father is a fifth degree black belt in shorinji kempo, a martial art style similar to kung fu. Her mother was athletic. Her sisters played basketball. Her parents felt that their five children should be outdoors, being physically active. Her father says the kids would spend as much as five or six hours a day playing anything from tag to volleyball.
The fourth of the five children, Hill enjoyed playing tennis and bowling recreationally, but it was the sport of basketball that had her full-time commitment. Typically in Japan, when a child chooses to play a sport competitively, it is the only sport on which they focus. Unlike her American teammates, who usually played multiple sports through high school, Hill picked up a basketball at 8 years old and hasn’t put it down since.
The young Hill committed to challenging herself on the basketball court. In high school, she made the decision to transfer to Asuwa High School, a place known for basketball. A considerable distance from home, Hill spent her last three years of high school living in a dorm.
“It was very sad for us,” Hill’s father said. “But she wanted to keep challenging herself and to spread her wings.”
Following graduation in 2017, Hill traveled to the United States to play at Tallahassee Community College. As a freshman, Hill started 19 of the Eagles’ 34 games. She was one of the top scorers on the team with 5.9 points per game. She also averaged 2.1 assists and 1.4 steals a game.
“It was a great experience for me,” Hill said. “But it was so different than my Japanese teams. I had a hard time fitting in.”
When the NJCAA championship tournament commenced in Lubbock, Texas, Tallahassee CC was seeded 11th out of 24 teams. The Eagles then proceeded to win all five of their tournament games, including the national championship versus Trinity Valley. The Eagles became the lowest seed in NJCAA Division I history to win the tournament.
Hill transferred to South Georgia Technical College for the 2018-19 basketball season. It was there that Hill’s stats improved significantly. She averaged 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds. At 6.4 assists per game, Hill led her conference and ranked third in the nation. She also averaged 3.7 steals per game, ranking ninth nationally. She led her team to a perfect 18-0 league mark and was named team MVP.
“It was fun,” Hill said. “Last year I had to lead the team. I had to call plays. I think it made me grow up a lot. It made me become more of a thinker.”
Hill was named MVP of the NJCAA Region XVII Tournament. She helped her Lady Jets earn a spot in the NJCAA championship tournament. Her team would lose in the first round to Trinity Valley, the same team she beat the previous year to win the national championship.
One of the people in attendance for Hill’s first round game was BGSU assistant Joel Whymer. After watching Hill’s performance, Whymer made Head Coach Robyn Fralick aware of Hill as a potential recruit. After graduating in the spring from SGTC with an Associate’s Degree in Sports and Fitness Management, Hill began looking for four-year institutions. Hill had a dream of playing for a Division I school, and Fralick needed a point guard.
“We felt like an area our team really needed to grow in was our ability to guard the ball. We felt like she did that really well,” Fralick said.
Soon after, the coaching staff called SGTC to arrange a visit. Both Hill and Fralick believed the meeting went very well, and on May 2, 2019, the woman from Nagakute signed a letter of intent to play for BGSU.
“Playing at a Division I college was one of my big dreams for a long time. It was just a great opportunity to play basketball at a higher level,” Hill said.
Hill is following in the footsteps of her older sister, Rina. Considered by some to be one of the best Japanese women’s basketball players, Hill’s sister played prep basketball at IMG Academy in Florida, widely regarded as one of the premier sports academies in the U.S. She signed to play college ball at Louisiana State University in 2013. In doing so, she became the first Japanese signee in LSU history, as well as the first Japanese native to play women's basketball in the Southeastern Conference.
Hill was the fifth and final member of a signing class that Fralick considers unique. In addition to Hill, 2019 signees Elissa Brett and Kaillie Hall are from Australia and Canada, respectively. Fralick believes the global nature of the class was a matter of timing and knowing the right people.
“When we got here (as a staff) in April 2018, most of the 2019 prospects were already committed,” Fralick said. “In the world of recruiting, it’s about having good people that you trust and good connections.”
What sets Hill apart from her international teammates is the fact that both Brett and Hall come from primarily English-speaking countries. Hill said that learning English is one of the greatest challenges of her time living in America.
Hill’s three older siblings grew up speaking Japanese and English in their home. From early on, however, Mari declined to speak English with her father.
“Mari is a bit of a perfectionist,” Hill’s father said. “Unless she feels she can do something perfectly, she’s sometimes reluctant to do it. It’s one of those things that she’s having to overcome.”
Hill feels basketball and school can be more challenging when speaking English. However, Hill is one of three Falcons to start every game so far this season. She currently leads the team in total steals. She is someone her teammates, including junior center Angela Perry, want on the court.
“On the court she plays selflessly,” Perry said. “If she has an open shot but someone else has a better one she makes the pass every time and nobody ever has to doubt her effort. She’s definitely someone that you want on the court with you.”
Hill is part of a small but growing number of Japanese basketball players competing at the collegiate level or beyond in America. Though she is not sure if she will play professionally, as her plans after college are still being decided, she thinks basketball may play a role.
“I don’t know if I want to go back to Japan or stay in the United States,” Hill said. “I definitely want to go back to Japan just to tell people what I’ve experienced in the United States. I’m interested in becoming a coach in Japan. I want to bring some American style to change Japanese style in a good way.”