Like most teenagers, the first thing Yuki Togashi does each morning is check his mobile for text messages. On March 11, he got a text from his mother in Japan informing him to call home right away.
"My mom said there was a huge earthquake but that all my friends and family were OK," said Togashi, a 17-year-old sophomore who plays point guard for Rockville's , the No. 3 ranked high school basketball team in the nation. "She told me not to worry—to think about school and basketball, but it's hard."
Togashi's parents, who live northwest of Tokyo in Niigata, were fine, but his grandmother's house—which is located closer to the epicenter of the earthquake—was completely destroyed.
"The whole house just fell down," Togashi said. "My grandma escaped and is staying with my parents, but I don't think they can rebuild the house."
After speaking to his mother, Togashi turned on the television and was crushed to see the scenes of complete devastation in his home country. He began calling friends around Japan and was able to verify that most were fine. One friend and former teammate reported that his town was completely devastated—most of the homes were without electricity and there was no food available in any of the local shops.
Despite the risks, all Togashi could think about was returning home to be with his family. The Montrose basketball team had been invited to represent the United States in the Norshiro Cup tournament in Tokyo in early May, but the tournament was canceled in the wake of the disaster.
"It was so disappointing because we were going to play in the biggest tournament in Japan, and then we were going to visit my city. So I was going to introduce everyone to my family and show them around," Nogashi said.
The tournament would have been a sweet homecoming for Togashi, who has started to earn significant playing team on one of the best high school teams in the country in just his second season in the United States. He's done it despite standing just 5 feet 7 inches and having to adjust to a new school, a new language and a new country.
Togashi's journey to Rockville is thanks in large part to the reputation of Montrose's legendary coach, Stu Vetter, who has coached eight NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Greivis Vasquez.
"Years ago, I did some clinics in Japan and while I was there, I came into contact with K.J. Matsui and Taishi Ito, who both came here and played and they became the first two Japanese-born players to play D-1 basketball," Vetter said. "K.J. graduated from Columbia and Taishi graduated from the University of Portland—and they're both playing in the Japanese professional league now."
Togashi's father, who was also the coach of Japan's national under-16 squad, heard about Matsui and Ito's experience, and before long Yuki was in Rockville working out for Vetter.
"I saw a video of him, but I don't go by videos," Vetter said. "He came over, tried out for me, went through the testing process. And we found out that he's an outstanding player and a good student too. He is probably more talented than either Taishi or KJ and they are both very, very good players."
But leaving home wasn't an easy decision. Togashi had a girlfriend and his mother wasn't keen on him being 11 time zones away. He moved into Montrose's "basketball house" last year and lives there with a "house father" who serves as a guardian to Togashi and five other players from Virginia, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Denmark, and Venezuela.
The house is a mini-United Nations where the American players help the newcomers adapt and the international players introduce the Americans to their cultures. Most of the questions he receives about Japan revolve around three topics.
"Americans always ask about samurais, sushi and Ichiro," he said. But he doesn't mind talking about any of the three.
Living together helps the team bond, but they occasionally like to have fun at Togashi's expense.
"We have fun with him and his accent," said Tyrone Johnson, a senior from New Jersey who will attend Villanova University next year on a full basketball scholarship. "We play jokes on him, and say things to him we know he won't understand, just for fun, but he has a great sense of humor about it."
But the hardest part of Togashi's transition hasn't been fending off his teammates' pranks or squaring off against opponents a foot taller than him.
"Language has been the biggest problem. I studied English in Japan, but really I didn't know that much," Togashi said. "Last year, I didn't know what a lot of people were talking about. I'm a point guard, and you have to communicate. But I couldn't really speak English, so it was hard to get playing time."
Hard work and total immersion have helped Togashi learn the language, earn A's and B's in the classroom, and make his mark on the court. He is almost always the shortest player on the court, but is often the player you can't take your eyes off of—the one who finds holes no one else sees, the one who fakes players out of their baggy shorts, the fearless one.
His goal is to play Division I basketball in the U.S. and then return to Japan to play professional basketball. With his team set to compete in the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational later this month at , Togashi is trying to focus on basketball, but of course, he still can't wait to return home.
"I'm going home to visit this summer, but I don't know right now—I don't know what the country will look like when I get there," he said.