FLYING HIGH WITH THE LADY EAGLES
by Rick Olivares
Photo by Aly Yap
The Ateneo Lady Eagles have made three trips to the UAAP Women’s Basketball Finals (1987, 2004, and 2005) and have come away with one title. They have been a final four habitué for five years running and when it comes to recruitment the school and the team is a preferred destination by female hoopsters.
For all the gaudy numbers and platitudes in recent years, there is one dubious record that the Lady Eagles‘ seventh-year coach John Flores wears on his sleeve.
It is a record of futility wrought at a time when unbelievably Ateneo sports and women’s basketball hardly mattered. It was a time when the team was the unlikely doormat and a sure win for opponents even before the opening whistle. It was a time when we were even beneath the opponents’ disdain.
But that was before.
Today opponents take every game against the Lady Eagles seriously. They know they’re in for one heck of a match and if anything, they’re lucky to walk away with a win. If our foes didn’t talk smack before, well now they do. Except that as it was before, they’re not getting the satisfaction of a retort.
“We have a rule where we forbid trash talking and taunting of any sort no matter what the situation,” says Flores. “Even now that we have a winning program, I always tell the girls that we don’t have the right to do that. Alamin at tandaan nila kung saan tayo nanggaling.” And the 1-35 didn’t happen on his watch.
In fact a few years ago, when the team was still struggling for wins they beat their forever tormentor UP. Only the team unwittingly committed a violation when two of their foreign-born players – Carol Tanchi and Cassie Tioseco -- were on the floor together during a crucial 30-second stretch in the game. UAAP basketball rules stipulate that only one foreign player can be on the court at any one time. Only no one noticed it; not even the table officials. But the Ateneo coaching staff eventually did and soon after the game they volunteered their error even if it meant that the victory would be overturned.
“Well it’s always about treating the game with respect,” explains Flores. “You respect the game and the game respects you. I’d say that since that incident we’ve been pretty lucky.”
It is also to Flores’ credit that the program has grown under his watch. The team showed marked improvement in the win-loss column every year since 2001.
Treena Limgenco, the team’s starting two-guard out of Maryland, USA, attests to the soundness of the current program: “While trying out for the women’s national team, it was there that I realized how fundamentally sound we were compared to most of the others. It really says a lot about the program.”
“Well when we recruit players, we go for those with brains,” expounds Flores. “Not just girls with an aptitude for basketball but those who can hack the demands on them as students. If they’re not as athletically gifted then their court smarts more than compensates for that.”
The team has three simple rules that govern their game plan: 1) run every chance they get, and 2) they’re free to run what offense they think is best. The third, according to Flores, well that’s his sole call, “I make the decisions on defense.”
The Lady Eagles’ 2005 champion squad is down to its last holdovers in guards Kat Quimpo and Cheryl Ngo, and forward-centers Tioseco and AJ Barracoso. And the experience of having gone to consecutive finals finishes in ’04 and ’05 is golden, something that even University President Fr. Benvienido Nebres S.J. realizes. “Fr. Ben constantly reminds the 2005 veterans to bring that mindset of a champion to the current team at all times,” recounts Tioseco, the league’s reigning MVP. “We have to act like one – not arrogantly – not just to our opponents but also to our teammates.”
Crystal Ballentyne, the Lady Eagles’ prize catch from Faith Academy, has been in the Philippines all her life. “I was born here,” says the soft-spoken freshman who is taking up Humanities. “The Philippines is my home and I’ve been here my whole life. There were no plans of going to the States so it was really special to receive an invitation to go to Ateneo. I was thinking that being a rookie; I wouldn’t get too much playing time. But coach John has been great and my teammates especially Cassie (Tioseco who is one of the co-captains along with Quimpo and Ngo) have helped make the transition easier for me.”
This season the Lady Eagles have flat out demolished the competition with a 12-2 eliminations record. “Last year’s semis loss just fueled our drive this year,” says Limgenco referring to the wrist injury that kept Quimpo out for a crucial stretch. “So even if we lost twice this year – the UE loss in the first round just killed our spirit – we talk about what we did wrong and what we have to do to get back on the winning track. We know what we can do so it’s a matter of executing our game plan better next time.”
Last September 15, the Lady Eagles beat long-time tormentor the Adamson Lady Falcons in the final four to set up a title series with archrival UP. “We match up well with them so it’s going to be a fun series,” smiles rookie Sarah Mercado who has provided much needed scoring sock off the bench for Flores. “But you can throw out the numbers even if we beat them twice in the eliminations. They’re that good.”
It’s the Lady Eagles’ fourth finals and third in the last four years. And in those past four years, the team finished with double digit wins. Not bad for a program that was the league doormat like forever.
Since John Flores took over in 2001, the team’s record is 59-41. If they win their second title this year, then maybe those are the records he and his girls can wear on their sleeves.