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.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hardcore: the JRU Heavy Bombers

(This appears in the Friday, September 12, 2008 edition of the Business Mirror)

words and pictures by rick olivares

There’s this story about one practice of the Jose Rizal Heavy Bombers that got out of hand. There were two players whose names I know not but who were both said to be shoving, pushing, elbowing, jawing, and taking cheap shot after cheap shot until their fabled player and Coach Cris Calilan called for practice to a stop.

“Magsuntukan kayo,” was the coach’s stern command.

Both players quickly offered apologies but the pissed off bench tactician would have none of it.

“Magsuntukan kayo o pareho kayong matatanggal sa team.”

Leaving them with no choice, the two players slugged it out until the fight was beaten out of them.

Even had you not heard about that, you would certainly know the kanto reputation or what others derisively call the jologs reputation of JRU hoops. Opposing teams may stumble at the finish line ahead of the Heavy Bombers but they had to fight, claw, and bleed for that.

The team got its nickname supposedly from the World War II bombs that were once stocked in the school during the Japanese occupation. A friend of mine wondered if this “war freak” attitude was akin to how the English developed a darker sense of life that was evident in literature and culture after all the air raids and bombings during that same war by the Germans. My take on it is that its baloney. There’s nothing about the wartime infamy of that school on 80 Shaw Boulevard that secretes angst.

Try telling that to John Marion Wilson.

Practice at the new and spartan (a more apt word for this team if there ever was) gym – simply called “the JRU Gym” – is intense like it always is. The Heavy Bombers came off a tough loss to Mapua; the last of a three-game slide. After losing their first two matches in the NCAA’s Season 84, the Heavy Bombers embarked on an eight game win skein that installed them at the number one position for awhile. But the skid has put them in a precarious situation where another loss possibly means missing out the Final Four bus altogether. And Wilson is a boiling cauldron. All season long, the swingman has seen his field goal percentage plummet. His frustration and inability to deliver is clearly bothering him and in this practice, it is driving him to distraction. After rookie Derico Lopez drove to the basket on one possession, Wilson’s hip check sent him sprawling to the baseline. A whistle blew and he threw up his hands in abject protest, “Foul ba ‘yun? Nag-flop lang siya!”

Minutes after, newbie Nchotu John Njei, a high-leaping guard from Cameroon, sprinted after rookie Nathaniel Matute who thought he had a clear lane to the basket. Njei trapped the ball against the backboard but in the battle for the loose ball, center James Sena accidentally knocked down Njei to the floor. The ball rolled out of bounds and a jump ball was called. Wilson picked up the ball and threw it to the African’s head. Njei retaliated and forward Jayson Nocom and Assistant Coach Lito Vergara stepped in to break it up. “Hey! Hey! Hey,” admonished Vergara, the former UP Maroons coach who now mentors the Xavier Stallions.

A few more plays later, Wilson’s war continued when Njei and guard Alex Almario ended up on the floor after a another loose ball scramble. The referee called for a jumpball but before anyone could get untangled, Wilson waded in to swipe the ball from Almario but not before throwing a punch. The coaching staff sent the seething swingman to the bench to cool off. I asked the team’s point guard Mark Cagoco if it was always this intense. The Davaoeño, who played ball with San Beda’s Pong Escobal at Holy Cross, shrugged it off and deflected the question. “Hindi naman.” He smiled as watched cooler heads prevail. “Okay lang naman. We just play hard all the time. Walang personalan.”

Throughout the proceedings, Coach Ariel Vanguardia stood at the sidelines occasionally barking instructions. When someone got lost in the shuffle, he stopped play and taught the proper alignment and stance.

The Heavy Bombers of Vanguardia have gained a reputation as a dirty team, a squad no one wants to play because of their helter skelter defense and highly physical play. “They are a big test for us,” said San Beda’s Escobal. “Challenge talaga. Pero hindi mo pwedeng sabayan ng physical na laro kasi if that’s not your style then they’ve won. So we have to play our game.”

Chris Soler of and a longtime NCAA watcher provided an interesting insight into JRU’s hoops renaissance. “Back when they were routinely making the final four in the early 90’s, batuhin mo lang ng hopia yung isang taga-JRU it was grounds for a fight. That’s what the fans and supporters did when they went to the games – they went there to fight. Today, well, it’s one big fiesta win or lose.”

Vanguardia ironically never counted on coaching as a profession. He was on the De La Salle Green Archers’ Team B in the early 1990’s along with Matt Makalintal and Maui Roca. “I was not given a chance to show what I could do. Maybe coaching is my way of contributing to the game.”

When asked about his team’s defensive and physical reputation, it comes as a surprise that he preached offense more. “I subscribe to the theory that a good offense is your best defense. Once the players learn what to do with the ball then we work on their defense. Kasi if you play defense but can’t score points when given the opportunity then para saan pa? Wala rin, di ba?”

More than scoring, it is also the team’s mindset and common goal built around the team’s motto of “no stance no chance” that Vanguardia hopes they will serve the in good stead en route to ending a 33-year championship drought.“

"No easy baskets para sa kalaban," grinned Cagoco. "No lay-ups."

You know it really boils down to respect,” explained Vanguardia. “It’s a small school with a semi-rich basketball tradition. Everyone wants validation for their program. Everyone wants respect. Kami? We want what they have. We want to win a championship.”

The team inherited by Vanguardia held its coming out party in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League of 2006. They were voted in and given a wild card spot by the sports media and they justified that faith by eliminating the then-newly crowned UAAP Champions UST in their home gym. They followed it up by knocking out Letran and Mapua in succession before falling to San Beda in the semi-finals. “Doon kami nagka-kumpyansa,” disclosed forward Marvin Hayes.

The Heavy Bombers followed up on that success (despite missing the services of Floyd Dedicatoria who had ended his tour of duty in the Champions League) with a third place finish last season. This year even with the transfer of Carlos Fenequito to UST and the loss to the pros and the graduation of RJ Cunanan and Alvin Se, JRU remains a formidable team. Vanguardia has his top six of Cagoco, Sena, Nocom, Hayes, Wilson, and Pradas to lead his squad. He has former FEU Team B guard Jay-R Bulangis to spell Cagoco while Jecster Apinan, Njei, Raycon Kabigting, and Nate Matute are his shock troopers off the bench.

It is because of the strong play of JRU that alumni support has come out. The cash flow saw the inauguration of their new gym. “We’ve got size, we’ve got depth, and more importantly, we’ve got a home,” said the coach referring to the new facilities. “Malaking bagay yan sa pag-boost ng confidence ng lahat.”

They also have a weights and plyometrics facility in a room adjacent to the basketball court. The room is oddly shaped. It’s triangular (talk about power) and has glass windows on two sides that gives the room a feel of an aquarium. Students and fans watch as the team works out inside. Some female students knock on the door and ask for the players’ mobile phone numbers. Vanguardia shakes his head as Sena typed in his unit’s digits into a co-ed’s phone. “Ibang klase talaga,” he muttered. “Chick boy.”

Outside the weights room is the equipment room. The equipment of the Pep Squad (they would win the NCAA Cheerleading Competition later in the day) is stored there as are balls, timers, and other equipment. Curiously, on the floor are the various trophies the school has garnered in its entire athletic history. It is part of the school administration’s mandate to impart their traditions to its student body and the restoration has already begun.

The hallway leading to the gym featured two huge canvass tarpaulins that show pictures of its champion team and famous athletes. There’s that 1972 team bannered by former Crispa Redmanizer Philip Cezar and that late 80’s star Vergel Meneses. “We’d like to be on that wall,” hoped Vanguardia. “Maybe this is the year. Maybe it’s the next. But I’d like to win it because we’re losing a couple of players to graduation.”

Over the years, JRU has lost a number of its players to other programs most notably Tim Gatchalian, Mark Benitez, Elmer Espiritu, and Mark Borboran. The accolades (Rookie of the Year) and scoring feats of Light Bomber Keith Agovida (where he scored 82 points against Mapua) has put him in the radar of other schools. While Vanguardia has successfully fended off transfer offers for his top players, he knows that he cannot stop them from moving on. “But so far we haven’t lost anyone we want to keep,” said the coach. “And I will tell you that we will compete every time we set foot on that floor.”

Regarding the intense practice that we witnessed earlier?

“We’ve had worse,” chuckled Vanguardia. “But anytime you step on the court with us… it’s war. And you’re definitely in it.”

With inboundpass's Chris Soler, Maui Pradas, Jay-R Bulangis, myself, Ariel Vanguardia, Jayson Nocom, John Montemayor, and James Sena.

With Mark Cagoco.

Author's Note: During the 2006 Champions League broadcast for BTV, I worked two games by JRU -- against Letran and Mapua; the former with Noel Zarate and the latter with Mark Zambrano. They were my first ever and I truly enjoyed them. The Heavy Bombers kicked some serious but that tournament and they were just fun to watch (some might disagree and say I am promoting violence). Bwhahaha. Ariel Vanguardia thinks that the best team to play is Ateneo De Manila because whenever you do so -- even if it's a practice game -- people come out and watch. It's like a real game. Before a practice game at Moro Lorenzo before the start of the season, Jai Reyes thought that they were an awesome team whose time had come. They were tough but it brought out the best in you. Added one Bedan player, after you beat them, pwede ka na mag-champion.

Here's the Business Mirror link!

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