This year's Challenge League campaign saw impressive performances from many players on all teams. Here are five of those who impressed the most. They are not necessarily the best players, the highest scorers or those most likely to become international squad members. As the title suggests, they are the players who have stood out the most. The players are not presented in any particular order.
Nakada Maiko (Ehime FC Ladies)
Nakada Maiko retired from Nadeshiko League football after seven seasons with Okayama Yunogo Belle to enrol at International Pacific University Women's College, beginning her coaching course in 2009. For the two following seasons she played for the college's team in the local Ehime leagues. In 2011, the college entered a partnership with J-League club Ehime FC, and Ehime FC Ladies was born. As a result, despite graduating from the college, Nakada was able to stay with the team as they fought for entry to the Challenge League, and at the end of the 2011 season they won promotion along with the Japan Soccer College Ladies.
Ehime's manager Ego Kenichi set a sixth-placed finish as the team's target for the 2012 season. However, things didn't start well as the team were beaten four times in their first five games, with an eight-goal drubbing at the hands of Vegalta Sendai the low point. However in their following game things changed for the better. Nakada scored a hat-trick in leading her side to a 6-4 victory over promotion-chasing Sfida Setagaya in a pulsating game. That was the first game in a run of six in which they were only beaten once, and the team moved comfortably into mid-table. As the season progressed Nakada continued to score vital goals, becoming the side's top scorer with twelve goals. More importantly though, her leadership qualities and her high level experience were vital in the development of the other players in the squad, all but one of whom are younger.
Nakada Maiko is an inspiration to her team, to college students, to other Challenge League players and to all supporters of women's football in Japan.
Takahashi Chiho (FC Takahashi Kibikokusaidaigaku Charme)
In their first season in the Challenge League in 2011, FC Takahashi had won the West division, and forward Takahashi Chiho was selected as the division's MVP. As it was the team's first season in the league, they were not eligible for promotion, and so the goal of promotion to the Nadeshiko League was resumed in 2012. Takahashi was now promoted to captain of the side, and despite an early home defeat to Vegalta Sendai, the team sat proudly at the top of the table entering June. Another stumble at home to Sfida Setagaya saw Vegalta overtake FC Takahashi at the top of the table, and Takahashi missed the next three games entirely, though she did return as a substitute for the following games against Vegalta Sendai and Nagano - with the 2-2 away draw against Sendai showing the potential and depth in the squad.
Returning to the starting lineup for the remaining seven games, Takahashi scored six goals in helping the side to secure second position in the division, setting up a promotion playoff with AS Elfen Sayama of the Nadeshiko League. In the first leg of the playoff, FC Takahashi recorded a 1-0 win in Kasaoka in southern Okayama, before making their way to Kumagaya for the second leg. In the 22nd minute Takahashi scored the most important goal both of her career, and the most important in the team's history - reflected in her ecstatic celebration. With the home side now down 2-0 on aggregate, including the concession of an away goal, there seemed only to be one possible result. Twice Sayama fought back to equalise to make it 2-2 on the night, but in additional time Takahashi was there again to score to give her side a decisive victory - heading in her fifteenth goal of the season, including the two playoff games.
This is Takahashi Chiho's fourth and final year of her university degree course. She will lead the team again as they seek to win the Inter-Collegiate Championships for their first time.
Kojima Miku (JFA Academy Fukushima)
Having begun the season as not even a starter, Kojima Miku ended it a star. Having been given just a five-minute substitute appearance against Norddea in the 2011 season, Kojima was not even included on the bench for the first two league games of the 2012 season. Things were to change for her dramatically, as the Academy's Under-17 National Team players were away for the third match against Bunnys Kyoto. In came Kojima into the Academy defence, and though the side lost to Bunnys, Kojima was to be retained as a starting member for the rest of the season. Of the following nineteen league games, she only missed out on playing twice, the reason being that she had also been called up to the Under-17 squad.
Having impressed while starting as a defender, in her sixth start she began the game as a forward, and within eight minutes had scored her first goal. That game was against Sfida Setagaya, and in each of the following two games against Ehime FC and Tokiwagi Gakuen, she scored again. In total she scored eight goals in eighteen games for the Academy, as they recorded a fifth-placed finish.
Those eight goals made Kojima the second-highest goal scorer in the team, and she ended the Challenge League season with the best shots-to-goals ratio of any player, as she had only taken twenty-two shots for a success rate of 36.4%
Kojima wasn't finished yet though, as following the Challenge League season, she continued to score in the Empress' Cup, with three goals in her side's three games to date. The Academy next play Urawa Red Diamonds Ladies in the next round, and whatever the result, Kojima Miku is sure to stand out.
Toriumi Mai (Japan Soccer College Ladies)
The JSCL team were promoted to the Challenge League following a 2-1 playoff victory over Ehime FC, who themselves were later promoted following a 3-2 aggregate victory over Norddea. Yet, despite this achievement, Ehime were able to establish themselves as a mid-table side looking for future promotion, while the JSCL ended the season bottom of the table and fighting for league survival in a round of playoffs.
The first half of the season saw the team go eleven games without a win, with just two low-scoring draws providing them with any points at all. The second round of eleven games didn't begin any better, as two more defeats followed. However, in their fourteenth game, captain Toriumi Mai scored twice - her first goals since the opening day - as her side found themselves in the unusual position of being two goals to the good. Their opponents that day, Ehime FC, recovered well and took a 3-2 lead with nine minutes remaining. The JSCL weren't to be beaten though, and almost immediately equalised to take a point.
With Toriumi finding form, things got a lot better for the JSCL. While they lost their next game by a large margin, they kept their heads and followed it up with their first win of the season - a 1-0 victory over fellow strugglers Nagano, with the goal coming from Toriumi. Though they lost their next game to Nittaidai, their following home game saw an even better result, as they trounced Bunnys Kyoto by five goals to nil - Toriumi scoring the vital first two goals. Toriumi was to end the season with eleven goals, with ten of those scored in the final nine games. In the end even her goals and her leadership wasn't enough to help the team climb the table. However, their improvement over those last nine games - eight of their ten points came from those alone - and the confidence instilled in them by their captain encouraged them enormously, and they comfortably saw off the challenge of Norddea in the playoffs. Toriumi scored again in the second leg, to bring her season's total to twelve goals from twenty-four games.
The future is bright for Toriumi Mai, and her enthusiasm, effort and skill this season will be have been well regarded by many in the game.
Oguri Mao (Nittaidai Football Club Ladies)
In her third year at Nippon Sport Science University, Oguri Mao continued to impress in midfield as her side finished fourth in the Challenge League, finishing above Tokiwagi Gakuen and the JFA Academy for the first time. Having scored twice in her first season, and four times last season, Oguri's tenacity and hard-working ethic brought her seven goals from midfield this season.
Nittaidai's routine opening day victory over Bunnys Kyoto included both a goal and an assist from Oguri, and although they were surprisingly beaten by their fellow students of Shizuoka Sangyo, they subsequently went on a run of five wins. Oguri missed two of these games, but her second substitute appearance in the side's sixth game was a revelation. A goal down to the JFA Academy at half-time, Oguri came into the game just before the half-time whistle and subsequently scored a hat-trick to turn the tie around, adding to Uemura Shoko's equaliser as Nittaidai attacked with vigour in the second half.
For the rest of the season, Oguri was a starting member in each game, scoring two further goals against the JSCL - including her first headed goal in just over two years - and her side's lone goal against Nagano. Oguri's scoring prowess is not in any way remarkable; what makes her outstanding is her stamina, determination and tenacity in chasing every ball, making every tackle count and working hard in all areas of the field.
Nittaidai's final challenge this year is for the Inter-Collegiate Championships, a competition they have won a record fourteen times. In last year's competition Nittaidai scored a total of eleven goals, Oguri Mao scored three of those and provided four assists, including the assist for Nittaidai's goal in the final. This season's competition should see another sparkling contribution from the Gifu native.