Wataru Wakamatsu

A year ago, Wataru Wakamatsu was lying in a hospital bed at Strong Memorial Hospital with a broken back.

Today, he will lead the Genesee Community College men's soccer team into the Region 3 Tournament against Tompkins-Cortland Community College.

Last season, Wakamatsu, who hails from the suburbs of Tokyo, was just starting to see significant playing time with the GCC squad.

In fact, GCC coach John Borycki was planning to start him in the team's next game. Wataru didn't show up for practice one day, and he was curious why. Then he read a story in The Daily News.

"I saw where he was involved in an accident in the parking lot where he was teaching another Japanese student how to parallel park, and he ran him over, and then (the driver) panicked and dragged him, and broke his back in two spots," Borycki said.

Borycki was worried about paralysis, but Wakamatsu wasn't as bad off as he could have been.

"When I was in the ambulance, I could move my legs, so I was pretty positive," said Wakamatsu, through an interpreter.

He was actually out of the hospital pretty quickly, and soon was pestering Borycki that he would be back this year.

"I didn't believe him," Borycki said. "That's quite an injury."

As it turns out, he did return, and what a return it's been.

Wakamatsu, 22, a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward, leads the Cougars in both goals (11) and assists (12).

How he made his way to GCC is quite remarkable as well. After high school, he went to a vocational school, and that school had contacts with GCC, according to Wakamatsu.

"Of course I had lots of other choices, but the main thing was, this school had a soccer team. Two, the tuition was very reasonable," he said.

Borycki soon discovered what he had in the Japanese import.

"Once he was here he was in my beginning indoor soccer class.I always look for students on campus, to see if there's a hidden gem that I missed. He's by far the best student I've ever had," Borycki said. "So I started asking him, 'Are you coming back next year, would you be interested in playing soccer.' And I had another Japanese student who was friends with Wataru. They both played last year for me."

Wakamatsu knows some English and is starting to understand the language better, but communicating with him is still difficult.

"I try to keep him on my side so I can explain. I use a lot of hand signals. Very simple, though. He picks it up," Borycki said. "Football's the international language."

He's majoring in sports management and would like to get a job someday with a major soccer team or organization.

"I want to go to a four-year college, but I don't have enough money to go to a four-year college. I need a scholarship," Wakamatsu said.

"We're working on that," Borycki said. "Most of my contacts with scouts are down south. He's going to have that Japanese redneck accent."

Before moving on, he has some unfinished business with the GCC squad.

GCC is hosting today's playoff opener against Tompkins-Cortland at 1 this afternoon. It's a rematch of a game that GCC won 2-0 earlier this year at Cortland State.

During the interview, Borycki looked at Wakamatsu and asked him who was going to win the national championship.

"It's going to be us," Wakamatsu said.

And for that answer, he didn't need a translator.