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KICKING BACK

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the field hockey court at Moorpark College, Shawn Nakamura would watch the school’s football team practicing on a nearby field.

Nakamura watched and watched until one day, just before the season started, he walked over to Coach Jim Bittner.

“He asked me if we needed a kicker,” Bittner said. “I said, ‘You know somebody?’ He said, ‘Yeah, me.’ I told him ‘Hell yes, we can use you.’ ”

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Nakamura and Bittner weren’t strangers. Nakamura was Moorpark’s kicker in 1997, but didn’t return the following season, choosing instead to play with the U.S. national field hockey team.

It was a good move.

Nakamura, 22, is among the top U.S. field hockey players, a steady midfielder and defender whose iron nerves make him a valuable commodity.

“He’s solid like a rock on defense,” U.S. Coach Shiv Jagday said. “He’s very hard to beat one-on-one. He’s cool and calm under pressure. That’s why he takes our penalty shots. He’s very efficient.”

Jagday, who lives in Moorpark, saw how consistent Nakamura can be during the team’s last major international competition, the Americas Cup in Havana in June.

Although the U.S. finished fifth and missed qualifying for the World Cup next year, Nakamura scored five goals, second-most on the team, all on penalty shots.

The opportunity to play in Cuba, Canada, England, Venezuela and other foreign countries is one of the reasons Nakamura, a former kicker at Camarillo High, focused on field hockey. And he got to do it with his older brother, Dean, a former goalkeeper on the team.

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Shawn started playing at age 10 on club teams and later convinced Dean, who graduated from Camarillo and is director of sport development for the U.S. Field Hockey Assn., to try the sport.

“He was a soccer player all his high school career,” Shawn said. “I finally pulled him in. We made the [men’s] national team the same year [1998].”

Nakamura, 5 feet 7 and 170 pounds, didn’t see his athletic future in football. But field hockey, a sport that counts with several youth club teams in Ventura County, was a different story.

“Since field hockey isn’t a real big sport in the U.S., I figured making the [national] team wouldn’t be as difficult as making like the soccer team and I’d be able to go places,” Nakamura said. “I’ve been all over the world.”

Last year, Nakamura was selected male athlete of the year by U.S. Field Hockey.

Nakamura is on a holding pattern, waiting for the national team trials in December at Moorpark. He’s passing the time by kicking for the Raiders and majoring in psychology.

Before a game against Santa Barbara on Saturday night, Nakamura had five field goals, including a 42-yard kick in a 29-6 victory over West L.A. on Sept. 16. That kick tied his best effort in college, in 1997, when he made 11 of 13.

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But the kick was eight yards short of his career best at Camarillo in 1995, his senior season. He was selected All-Southern Section that year after making 10 of 16 field-goal attempts.

“He didn’t lose anything,” Bittner said. “He just walked up and everything went through the uprights.”

Nakamura didn’t show up totally cold.

“Every once in a while I’d take the footballs and go out and kick them,” Nakamura said.

Nakamura tried to make up for lost time a little too quickly. He kicked so much, and from so far so soon while trying to keep up in friendly competition with sophomore Adam Holiday, that he pulled a muscle in his right hip.

“It’s been bothering me since the summer time, but I’ve been pretty happy with my kicking,” Nakamura said.

Likewise for Bittner, who had to worry about one less thing once Nakamura returned.

“When he showed up, I slept better at night,” Bittner said.

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