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.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #164 Pride & Glory: The JRU Heavy Bombers and the Letran Knights

This appears in my column in the Monday June 29 edition of the Business Mirror.

Pride and Glory
by rick olivares

Seven minutes and four seconds na lang,” announced one of team assistants of the Jose Rizal University Heavy Bombers. Those minutes were sure to fly fast as the three-time defending champions San Beda Red Lions had made mincemeat out of the Mapua Cardinals in the first game of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Season 85 as coaches emptied their benches. The Heavy Bombers were going up against Colegio De San Juan de Letran in the second match of the day. Perhaps the only one worth the price of admission for the third game was another mismatch as a souped-up San Sebastian Stags team was to face a young University of Perpetual Help System-Dalta squad.

Jose Rizal and Letran had meet twice in the Final Four in the last two years with both teams carving one series with over the other.

“O, huddle na,” commanded JRU Head Coach Ariel Vanguardia who was about to issue last minute game instructions. Then to the assistant, “Huwag ka magpapapasok kahit sino. Kahit sino.”

“Except si (Jose) Rizal,” joked Assistant Coach Lito Vergara. “Mahirap na. Baka magalit sa atin at malasin.”

The locker room atmosphere was electric. The room’s denizens no doubt took a cue from its energetic, quotable, and fiery coach. “No need to pump up these guys,” Vanguardia commented later. On the whiteboard, he scribbled in big bold words, “Defensive Intensity.”

“That is how we will win it,” he underscored. He then exhorted the team to several huge yells that further charged the atmosphere. “Last time tayo nandito natalo tayo. All our sacrifices will be in vain if we don’t follow what we’ve been training for since last year. We have played this team (Letran) before when they were much stronger. There is no reason why we cannot defeat them again.” he thundered. “Whatever the officiating is, whether the game is low-scoring or high-scoring, it does not matter. Let’s get the win.”

During the past summer, the team held a photo session for a sponsorship proposal to the top athletic apparel companies. Someone suggested they take the photo next to the 1972 NCAA trophy, the school’s one and only men’s basketball championship. Vanguardia’s mouth contorted into a frown then to a look of dismay. “The past is the past,” he rebutted. “The time is now.”

Vangaurdia was born that year but he admits he became acutely aware of JRU’s history was when he assumed the coaching chores four years ago. Every year they have gotten better and this year perhaps represents their best chance to seize that elusive title.

The ball was to go down low to center James Sena and to attack the interior where Letran was weak. “Marvin (Hayes), go in for the rebound,” reminded Vanguardia to his do-it all forward who has an uncanny nose for the ball that he converts for high percentage shots.

After the meeting, Hayes led the team in prayer. The player from Binangonan called out Almighty for strength and wisdom at least two dozen times in the minute-long prayer. “6-3-2-1!” yells the team as they bound out of the locker room. Vanguardia, with his yellow gold JRU shirt soaked with sweat sat on a chair lost in his thoughts.

Inside the locker room of the Letran Knights, the mood was more serene. The placid atmosphere however masked the focused intensity of Louie Alas’ charges. His team lost eight players to graduation whereas JRU, tagged as the pre-season favorite to win it all, was missing only two. “It’s a young team,” the coach noted. “Be that as it may, meron kaming tradition to uphold. We made the Final Four the past six seasons. We lost Kojak Melegrito, Dino Daa, Ray Dangcal at maraming iba but that doesn’t mean we will back down from anyone.”

The two basketball squads have developed a rivalry in recent years and Opening Day pitted the two once more in the main game of the afternoon.

In Season 83, the Knights, the league’s number two seed dispatched the Heavy Bombers 70-61 in the Final Four to advance to the championship where they lost to San Beda. The following year, JRU returned the favor by eliminating Alas’ squad in two matches in the Final Four to advance to the title series where they fell prey to a grand-slam seeking Red Lions team.

Each of the Knights dealt with the pre-game preparations differently. Senior Rey Guevarra had massive headphones on. RJ Jazul dressed up quietly and occasionally checked is phone for messages. Shooting guard Reymar Gutilban was in quiet conversation with center John Foronda. Any conversations were muted.

“Three minutes before game time,” said a television production assistant who poked his head inside the Letran locker room.

Alas, in his trademark blue adidas sweat shirt motioned for his team to gather around. The pre-game meeting was done earlier. Now was the time for some simple reminders. “JRU is a team that likes to score early on,” he said softly. “Tayo, ang advantage natin is working the shot clock. Be patient in finding the open man. Disrupt natin yung rhythm nila. Tayo mag-dictate ng pace ng laro. Play smart. Kahit ilan lang gamitin ko sa laro, lahat tayo may roles. Execute natin.”

He was counting on his two senior players – guard RJ Jazul and forward Rey Guevarra who both saw extensive action with the Smart Gilas RP Men’s National Team during the summer – to lead their team into battle and hopefully, score an upset.

It is the coach who led the team in prayer. Alas asked the Lord to give everyone the strength and courage to play and to protect his boys and opponents from injury. The team broke from the huddle with a loud, “Arriba, Letran. Team. Team. Team.”
Alas sat down on a chair and was lost in his thoughts.

The Heavy Bombers’ game plan didn’t go as planned. Instead of bringing the ball down low, JM Wilson bombarded from the outside except he was off target. Point guard Mark Cagoco, who in reality is better suited as a shooting guard was unable to set up the offense. Vanguardia sent in Jay-R Bulangis to steady the ship when Letran’s Guevarra tied the match at 10-all with an uncontested jumper.

A quarter is 10 minutes long but it took the two teams seventeen minutes to play it. Alas stood the whole time while Vanguardia sat down with 54 seconds left in the first quarter.

He made his adjustments and the Heavy Bombers took the half 36-30. Vangaurdia was upset that they could not control the game. They knew the Red Lions and their coaching staff were watching closely.

In the third quarter, the Heavy Bombers found their groove as they raced to a 13-point lead. But with four minutes left in the game, Bulangis fouled out. Letran capitalized on the loss of JRU’s best ball handler by pressuring the Bombers into turnover after turnover.

Guevarra’s two free throws brought the JRU lead down 68-66 with 1:49 left.

Down to the last 24 seconds, a misplay on Letran’s offensive saw the loose ball skitter towards Wilson who high-tailed it for a breakaway layup. Alas’ son, rookie point guard, Kevin, who saw significant action with the RP Youth team, committed an advantage foul on Wilson. Two free throws plus ball possession for JRU.

The freshman picked himself up and realized his error. Still JRU left the window open for a Letran comeback as Wilson connected on only one free throw 69-66. After another failed Letran offensive, Wilson was fouled once more with less than a second left. Despite his game-high 21 points, he succumbed to the pressure as he missed both shots. Foronda’s desperation heave from 90-feet was way short.

Both teams were quiet inside their respective locker rooms. Disappointment was all over the faces of the Knights as their rally fell short. The Heavy Bombers got the win but the mood wasn’t as charged two hours earlier. They had escaped. Maybe even worse, their suspect ball handling (especially without Bulangis) was exposed.

We’ll bounce back.” Alas coaxed his wards inside his dugout.

Vanguardia, who is feeling the pressure of all the pre-season expectations, knew they had dodged a bullet. “A win is win,” he mustered as he left the media room.

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Thanks to Ariel Vanguardia and Louie Alas.

Letran Knights 2009-10

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