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After Ohtani and Kikuchi, Japan high school toasts latest baseball prodigy

Hanamaki, Japan CNN —

At a school in Japan’s snowy northern mountains, reminders of distinguished alumni are everywhere. Banners herald Los Angeles Dodgers megastar Shohei Ohtani and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, their faces greeting every visitor.

But now, Hanamaki Higashi High School celebrates a new prodigy in its midst – one whose high-school records beat even those of Ohtani and Kikuchi.

Raised in the sleepy town of Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, Rintaro Sasaki doesn’t know a life without baseball, having grown up playing catch with both his sister and his father, who is a coach.

Once he joined a school known for its elite baseball team, he shared dormitories with teammates and was immersed in the sport – as well as in his predecessors’ towering achievements.

“The presence of legends like Shohei Ohtani and Yusei Kikuchi were a huge factor as to why I got into baseball – I fell in love with the sport,” Sasaki told CNN.

Now aged 18, he has already etched his name into the annals of baseball history with an astounding 140 home runs during his high school career, a feat which surpasses the legends he admires. He was the projected number-one pick for Japan’s professional baseball league.

But unlike his predecessors, Sasaki is charting a different course. Eschewing an immediate professional career, he is instead choosing education: from this autumn, he’ll attend Stanford University in California, with a view to top-level baseball after that.

“I think it could be a place where I can challenge myself in new ways. And I don’t just want to practice baseball, but also study to prepare for my second career when I eventually retire,” he said, drawn to Stanford by the expansive campus that felt like a slice of home