Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Like a Blue Eaglet from the Ashes

Like a Blue Eaglet from the Ashes
by rick olivares

Where do you begin to tell the story of these 2017-18 Ateneo Blue Eaglets?

Do we go right to the end of Season 79 when the team shockingly fell to the then eventual champions Far Eastern University in the semi-finals? The team should have at least made the finals and even won it.

Three nights later, all the seniors – Amchel Angeles, SJ Belangel, Jason Credo, Rap Escalona, Dave Ildefonso, Joaqui Manuel, and Migo Santos – all met up for a couple of hours of soul searching and to plan for the next season. That was a tough evening… thoughts and frustrations were shared. However, they resolved to all commit to the drive for that elusive championship.

They agreed to meet regularly for lunch, dinner or some other function before games or even the UAAP season. The objective was to remain solid as unit and to bring up the newbies.

And there were two big ones right before the finals – one with the families at Sambokojin in Eastwood that wasn’t a celebration but one to remind all the players that the job wasn’t done – and one right before Game 3, a players only dinner to say, we all in this together.

Do we jump far ahead to the end of Game 2 of the finals, where the team struggled mightily against National University’s tough defense and a poor outing by many of the Blue Eaglets was their undoing?

After an ill-advised inbounds pass ended the game with a Bullpups steal and lay-up for a win, the look on the faces of the Blue Eaglets was close to the end of their season against FEU one year ago. The battle was joined. And now, the 15-0 win streak was a distant memory as it had come down to one game.

In truth, it came down to the final 42 seconds.

After NU’s Paolo Javillonar split his free throws to notch the count for one last time, at 58-all, Ateneo cleared space for Joaqui Manuel to go one-on-one with Rhayyan Amsali (Kai Sotto and SJ Belangel moved out of the shaded area). Manuel, bad ankle and all who labored greatly throughout the game, blew past NU’s bull-strong forward out of Ateneo de Zamboanga, for a reverse lay-up. Except he missed it. But Sotto moved in for the offensive put back. Two-point Ateneo lead, 60-58, with 29 seconds left in the game.

NU’s wondrous forward Miguel Oczon missed a three-point attempt and incredibly Terrence Fortea was able to get the offensive rebound during a scramble. But the Batang Gilas player lost the ball and Ildefonso passed the precious rock to Belangel who was fouled by Amsali.

Belangel, who for the second consecutive game struggled against NU’s defense (he shot a poor 23% in Game 3), hit both free throws for a four-point lead, 62-58.

After a NU turnover, Ildefonso split his free throws to give Ateneo a five-point lead, 63-58. Amsali grabbed the offensive rebound, but Jason Credo stole the ball from him and tossed towards the bleachers as the final buzzer sounded.
And bedlam ensued.

A blue and white kind of bedlam. Two years of broken dreams and frustration. Of nagging doubt, angry words, and tears. Washed away. The final 42 seconds told the story of this team and its players.

For Manuel… transferring from Xavier to Ateneo was a very difficult decision. “It is different after you graduate from high school and move on to college,” reflected Manuel post-championship match. “Last year, my classmates in Xavier were all shook that I transferred to Ateneo. There were many opportunities for me to move to Ateneo as a brother Jesuit school. To study in this school and I will graduate from this school. To make history as the first junior high champs of this school. To be with these teammates? I am standing here with a gold medal around my neck. How good is that? And I can tell people that I played with Kai Sotto. Those are a lot of good things to say.”

It was also Manuel’s steal off a pass by Terrence Fortea to Amsali that gave Ateneo a late four-point lead, 58-54, with 1:40 left to play.

“I have had this foot injury since the last elimination round game against NU. It is not using an excuse but I was focusing on winning the game and the championship. When I got the steal, I just ran as fast as I could – and I hoped I wouldn’t travel – I thought of the thousands of times I have gone for a lay-up and hoped I didn’t bungle it. And I scored.”

For Escalona, who is the nephew of former Ateneo Blue Eaglet and Blue Eagle, Macky Escalona, it was about being a leader for this team.

During that post-Season 79 meeting, he told his teammates, “I am not as athletic as you guys. I don’t have the shooting touch of you guys. But I will work to contribute what I can.”

With Amchel Angeles and Allen TaƱedo suspended for the game (former team strength and conditioning coach Aris Manalo volunteered to watch over the two in a nearby place while catching the game on television; they also made it to the post-game celebration), Escalona, who had played well in the second round onwards, was going to get longer minutes. He battled cramps and a foot injury during Game 3. Late in the game, with NU looking imperious after they built a precious six-point lead, 54-48, with 4:21 left to play, Escalona grabbed Belangel who had been struggling with the terrific defense on him by his NU counterpart Paul Manalang. “SJ, last game ko na ito,” Rap said out loud to Belangel. “Ayoko na matalo. Kunin na natin ‘to, SJ.”

SJ scored on a jumper and later added two free throws for the win.

For rookie Daniel David, the son of former pro player Long David, he was recruited several years ago but wasn’t able to move right away because of grade level concerns. When he did move, he played well during the summer leagues but lost his confidence come the UAAP season. After a win over FEU in the second round, David, during the singing of the alma mater, let loose his tears. He wanted badly to contribute but was unable to do so. His teammates, all gave him a hug and said his time will come. And late in the second round, he began to make better contributions. Come the finals, he played long minutes and contributed with his booming triples.

And for next year, he will be one of the team captains.

For Geo Chiu, it wasn’t an easy decision to also move to Ateneo. He refused initially, but his parents thought that the opportunity for studies and for his budding basketball career was too good to pass. There were days he struggled. However, that is because this is his first real exposure to high level basketball. Yet in Game 3, he held his own and played perhaps his best game of the season. As Sotto was plagued by foul trouble, Chiu scored four points, grabbed 11 huge rebounds to add to Kai’s 13, and blocked on shot. NU’s Miguel Malonzo, NU’s amazing impact player and who won Game 2 for the Bullpups, was held to four points with only two in the fourth period and get this… zero rebounds.

In a year’s time, he’s won a gold medal with Batang Gilas during Seaba and now, a UAAP Juniors championship. After the game, his Ateneo classmates all hugged him and cheered. One pointed to him and said out loud, “Geo, welcome to the Ateneo!”

“No regrets,” smiled the soft-spoken Chiu. “I have been very happy since I moved. Very happy.”

For SJ Belangel, it hasn’t been an easy road. “There were times I wanted to leave but I fell in love with the school and the community,” bared the Bacolod-born Belangel during the pre-season meeting of the seniors. “Nakita ko kahit nung natalo kami, my classmates were there for me. To win this? It has been great ever since I moved to Ateneo four years ago.”

After the fall of Season 79, Ildefonso talked about older brother Shaun winning and losing a Juniors championship. “Although he won one, my brother wanted to also graduate with a championship. But you can’t win all the time. I want to win one too, not only for myself and my family, but my classmates and the school too.”

For Carlo Lopa, all he wanted to be was a part of the team. Since his Ateneo grade school days, he was never the star; always a role player. Even as he saw more talented players come in, he never wavered in his belief that he’d make the team especially as he graduated from high school. “I guess,” he postulated during the championship dinner – also in Sambokojin this time though along Edsa – “that dreams do come true.”

Jason Credo’s face could not be described after his ill-fated inbounds pass that was picked off in the dying moments of Game 2. After the end of Season 79 at the hands of FEU, Credo helped up some of his crestfallen teammates. Then he sat down on the bench and asked to no one in particular, “Na naman? Nangyari na naman?”

A year prior to the FEU fall, the Blue Eaglets also shockingly lost to De La Salle Zobel in the Final Four. And that was when they still had Gian Mamuyac, Shaun Ildefonso, Jolo Mendoza, and BJ Andrade. RV Berjay was also still in uniform.

The ride back home to Marikina was in stunned silence. For days, he refused to eat. He spoke little. No one was more joyous than Credo when he moved to Ateneo from Marist. “That was a dream,” shared Jason back then, “to go to Ateneo. Sometimes, I can’t believe that I am wearing that blue and white jersey or putting on that blue polo and khaki pants to school. It’s been great.”

Credo also joined a Batang Gilas squad that was packed with Blue Eaglets -- Mamuyac, Belangel, RV Berjay, Andrei Flores, and Dave Ildefonso. “It is such a great feeling to share something, an achievement with these players; yung mga ka-batch ko,” noted Jason.

At the start of this season, Credo was moved to the bench. Not as a demotion by the coaching staff but to shake things up. They needed firepower and playmaking, defense as well. And Credo is an incredible but vastly underrated two-way player. In fact, no one feeds to the ball to Sotto -- who also moved to the bench as Chiu started -- better than Credo. Sotto’s highlight reel will fetch you a lot of no look passes, touch passes, and even those of the wrap around variety. And the two have also forged an uncommon bond.

One now solidified by a championship.

“When last season ended, I couldn’t wait for Season 80 to get started,” shared Kai. “Gusto ko agad makabawi. It was all worth it. Sobra. What a great feeling.”

And that is how it ends.

-- For Andrei Flores, Zach Salazar, and RV Berjay. And for the coaches too -- Joe Silva, Jon Jacinto, Yuri Escueta, Ford Arao, Reggie Aromin, Reggie Varilla, and company.

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