An unexpected but welcome championship
Ateneo bags an unlikely UAAP football title
by rick olivares
A season has many images. When a team wins, the image most often associated with it is when the players lift the trophy amidst a cacophony of emotions.
My memory of this season begins with the second round match against FEU.
The Tamaraws went ahead in the 12th minute of play when striker Eric Giganto fired a thunderous shot that beat Ateneo keeper Nick O’Donnell for the first time all season. FEU rejoiced. Revenge for their first round loss seemed at hand.
However, once the second half began, Ateneo took over as they began to outplay the talented Tams. The problem was in the finishing.
The two teams have much history for the core of both squads battled for several years in the juniors ranks. Both claimed a pair of titles off each other. There’s respect and a dash of animosity. But in this match, it was the latter than reared its ugly head as the game turned more physical.
Ateneo lost its previous match; it’s one and only loss for the entire season to La Salle, 2-nil. And a second consecutive loss would be costly as it would drop them further in the standings.
With time running out, freshman Carlo Liay headed in a cross by Mikko Mabanag that found the back of the net. It was an 89th minute miracle. And the Blue Booters went on to salvage a hard earned 1-1 draw that kept them atop the standings.
As soon as the final whistle blew, defender Luis Mendoza ran onto the pitch and tugged on his shirt to emphasize the “Ateneo” emblazoned in front. “Hindi kayo mananalo sa amin,” yelled Mendoza after the contentious and heated contest.
All season long I wondered if Ateneo could win it all? That confirmed it. What kind of men are these to dare the favorites? The passing machine and joga bonito-style side known as the FEU Tamaraws? Are they mad? Yet even so they also must be good.
Somehow not too long ago that didn’t seem so.
Flash back to Season 74, the Blue Booters finished second to the last. Somewhat better than the previous year where they were dead last in the standings. It was the first and only time Ateneo had fallen to the cellar since the school transferred to the UAAP in 1978.
In Season 74, the team oft lost in the final 10-15 minutes of play. Oh, they were a tough team to beat all right.
The highlight of that season were its two wins over La Salle, a much better and deeper squad. If anything, it said something of their promise.
When Nick O’Donnell, Carlo Liay, Val Calvo joined the their fellow freshmen in Eric Figueroa, Chris Sumulong, Emilio Pelaez (from the Ateneo High School), Armand Gozali and John Christopher Aw Young from Xavier, I got excited and felt that we had a young and talented team. But it frightened me too because in many ways, it reminded me of the composition of the 2008 Blue Booters team that lost to FEU in the finals.
That 2008 team had a stud goalkeeper in RS Mantos, the Rookie of the Year in Migs Tuazon, backup keeper Yu Murayama, scoring sensation Gerard Cancio, and veterans Pat Ozaeta, Alvin Perez, and Gino Tongson. There were a lot of youngsters and a few vets. In Game 2 of the finals, the pressure got to them and the Tamaraws won that pivotal match.
My indelible image of that game was team captain Pat Ozaeta gathering his fallen and grieving teammates. “Get up, guys,” Ozaeta firmly commanded. “Atenista tayo. Let’s take this like men.”
When Ateneo figured in a scoreless draw with UE to start Season 75, they looked promising. They held the ball, dominated possession, and had scoring opportunities. But that’s UE, the devil’s advocate in me said.
Now when they beat UP, 1-0, in their first round encounter and FEU by the same scoreline, I began to feel good about our chances.
Incredibly, they kept winning. No matter if the scorelines were 1-0. They were collecting the three full points available. Liay began to play better. Calvo was a scoring revelation. The defense was a tough nut to crack.
Ah, the defense. I remember Enzo Bonoan’s freshman year. He was in and out of the lineup as he looked soft and inconsistent. Not this year. He was solid on the right back position.
And there was Mikko Mabanag. Time was he was too feisty for his own good. Always getting into fights. I have been mentoring Mabanag since his fourth year in high school all the way to the NCR U-23 team he made. The kid had talent but lacked the composure to become the true wizard he is in the midfield. I had seen him in high school and he was a talent. The trick was to help him rein in those emotions and become a better leader on and off the pitch.
I included him in the Clear Dream Match that was held at the University of Makati last year. In that match, he was named the “Best Midfielder”.
The way he raided opposing midfielders, set up plays, made those crosses, and helped out on defense has been a massive advantage for Ateneo. The only other player who did the same thing for their team was FEU’s Arnel Amita.
After dusting off La Salle in a penalty shootout, there was one team left – the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons; winners of three titles in the last four seasons. If Ateneo wanted to be champions, they had to go through the champs.
In one of those weird déjà vu moments with the 2008 season, I remember UP making noises about finally having a team that could compete for a title. They had Stephen Permanes, Allan Serna, Deo Segunial, Andoni Santos, Nacho Mendezona, Andrei Mercader, Jay Eusebio, Nathan Octavio, and Jed Rances to name a few.
In the second round, Ateneo got back at the Fighting Maroons with some players saying that this wasn’t their time.
Well it wasn’t for UP just yet but it wasn’t for Ateneo either that season.
And this season you had Ateneo players yapping at FEU that it wasn’t their time yet. Could this be the time of the blue and white?
Despite the graduation of much of its title core over the years, UP still was a terrific football team. They had an up-and-coming keeper in Ace Villanueva and old reliable Ty Caballes who once backstopped for Ateneo. They had the bullstrong Daniel Gadia, the speedy Michael Simms, the slippery Albert Yatco, and veterans Valmayor, Segunial, Fernandez, and company. And on the bench were to of the brightest tacticians in local football – Anto Gonzales and Frank Muescan.
In their trophy case are 16 gleaming UAAP football trophies. They are one of the best footballing schools in the country.
Ateneo has 11 football titles. Six in the NCAA: 1924, 1941, 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1967; and five in the UAAP: 1996, 1999, 2004, 2005, and 2006.
The last time both teams met in the UAAP Finals was in 2004 where the Blue Booters piped the Ariel Zerrudo-led squad.
UP has their fearsome striker in Jinggoy Valmayor.
Ateneo has no striker. None. Zip. Nada. All season long we played without a natural striker.
UP has its national players in Valmayor, Raymark Fernandez, and Deo Segunial.
Ateneo has none. Their only players with UFL experience were Jacobo Lorenzo who was on Kaya’s bench a year ago and Nick O'Donnell who had gotten a little playing time with Loyola two years ago.
In Game One, the Blue Booters were obviously nervous. They were slow, they missed their spots, and couldn’t really control the ball. They conceded a first half goal to Vincent Aguilar.
I noted that even in the first half, Ateneo made all its runs on the right side of their field (the Maroons’ left). UP was funneling the Blue Booters to the left where their defense in the middle and the back was stronger. Once the ball got there, they trapped the ball carrier and went on the counter. I passed on the notes to Greg Madrona, the Ateneo's goalkeeping coach, who in turn in he gave to head coach JP Merida who was making adjustments on the midfield and on defense.
In the second half, part of the Ateneo coaching staff's game plan was to continue the assault on UP's weaker right side. The substitutes for Ateneo – Chris Sumulong and Luis Mendoza – were impact subs and it was the former who launched the cross – from the right side – that Yu Murayama headed in. Yu's header sent the match into extra period and into penalties where the Blue Booters pulled out another rabbit.
In Game Two, Valmayor was back after missing the first match. However, their top rookie, Daniel Gadia, was out on account of two yellow cards. But so was Ateneo's Jico Noel who was a bedrock at the back four.
Basically, the team had to make a stand now. A Game Three would be disastrous. Six players had yellow cards. There was no telling how the officiating would go and if any would be docked another card as well. A loss would give UP the momentum and they would surely use their championship experience to the hilt.
I sent a message to Merida (with his permission), Mabanag, and Bonoan with an idea on stopping UP. I always thought that one of their problems offensively this season was putting Michael Simms in a holding position. I thought the previous year, he was electric on the wing. Placing him in the back deprived UP of that speed on the flanks.
Having watched almost all of UP’s matches this season, I thought they fell into a predictable pattern. Simms and Nathan De Guzman would move up and force the midfield to confront them. That would open up some space then they would launch those long balls in Valmayor’s direction.
The idea was to stop those two from sending those long balls and to force them to put the ball on the ground; something they were not adept at I felt all season long. They preferred to led Gadia or De Guzman run up. Not having Gadia was huge. He was like Valmayor; knowing how to use his body on the turn before firing.
They weren’t really a team that liked to build up their attack from the back unlike Ateneo. If the Maroons could be forced to put the ball on the ground then players like Mabanag, Calvo, and Figueroa with their pesky defending could strip them of the ball and go on a quick counter.
And it worked. Ateneo had a lot more dangerous runs inside but couldn’t score.
At the start of the match I also noticed that two physical therapists were working on Valmayor’s leg. Maybe he wasn’t 100%, I thought to myself and relayed the message to the coaches. And true enough, he didn’t seem to have that speed.
That meant he would conserve himself and pick his spots to run. Just do not give him space where he could hurt us.
If UP was expecting Ateneo to attack from the right, this time, they did the reverse. They attacked the left side with better support. They had plenty of scoring opportunities on this side but still couldn’t finish.
By the extra period, the team was running on fumes. It was as if they were just waiting to send the match into a penalty shootout. The team was quite confident of their chances there. After all, they had won their last two shootouts and they had a safety net in goalkeeper Nick O'Donnell who was undoubtedly the top keeper in the league.
And so it went to another shootout.
Eric Figueroa sent Ty Caballes the wrong way and a 1-0 Ateneo lead.
As for UP, I was surprised when it was Evan Mendoza who went to take the first spot kick.
The first thing that came to my mind when it wasn’t Valmayor who took the first penalty shot was Cristiano Ronaldo not getting a chance to shoot against Spain in the last World Cup. Don’t you want to start a little sure footed?
Mendoza had come in late in the extra period. But who knows? Maybe he was fully confident. Except that he scuffed his shot and it went wide setting the tone for the Maroons.
Caballes trooped to the goal with his shoulders hunched. The body language said it all.
Calvo also sent Caballes the wrong way and now it was 2-0, Ateneo.
Then it was Raymark Fernandez’ turn but O’Donnell parried it away. The Maroons were now in trouble.
Caballes guessed right for Mabanag’s shot but the ball was high and in; 3-nil Ateneo.
Finally, Valmayor took his spot kick and he buried it; 3-1 still Ateneo. But there was no show of emotion.
Liay sent his shot way up high and suddenly there was a glimmer of hope for UP.
Fe Baya caught O’Donnell looking with his shot and it was 3-2. Now it was up to team captain Yu Murayama to end a six-year title drought.
His shot was similar to Mabanag’s – to the keeper’s right but high. Caballes flailed at the ball but it was gone.
Ateneo had done the improbable. They had won three consecutive penalty shootouts –one against La Salle and two against UP to annex their sixth UAAP Men’s Football Championship.
It was a most unexpected but welcome title considering that the team was never mentioned as a pre-season contender.
But they showed a lot of heart and resiliency. They conceded the fewest goals all season long – four. They had beaten every team in the league.
And now... they were champions.
After Migs Tuazon’s bittersweet 2008 season and the succeeding years where the team floundered, he thought of giving up. But former Ateneo captain Gab Siojo told him to keep on trucking because before his time would be done, he would win a UAAP title. “I held Gab to his promise,” said a tearful Tuazon who hugged Siojo post-match.
Mabanag also was in tears. After his senior year in high school where the juniors team lost to FEU, he thought about not playing in college. But the youngster persevered and now he had a title to go with the one he won in high school.
Murayama was another unlikely hero in the most unlikely of seasons. After tending the nets in the second round La Salle match that Ateneo lost, he was pulled out after the second goal. Yu was in tears as he sat on the bench.
In Season 74, he played a field position as Joel Faustino was the starting keeper. In the second round match against the Green Archers, Faustino got injured and Murayama put on the goalkeeper’s gloves. He went on to stop a barrage of shots that preserved a win for Ateneo; one of three wins for the tournament.
In the penalty shooutout against La Salle in the semifinals, Murayama missed his spot kick. Yet in the Game One shooutout against UP, Merida kept him in. He repaid his coach’s faith with a match-winning penalty.
And now he did it again.
Val Calvo buried his father not too long ago. There’s been a void left behind but he still kept trucking. “I know that he is cheering for me up there,” he said with red eyes.
JP Merida took on a team that was fractured. There wasn’t one practice where this player fought that player. There were people who didn’t like one another on the team. It was that bad. But Merida slogged on. He reminded them every single day that the only one who can help them on the pitch was their teammate. He worked on players and got them to believe.
The result is the first time since 1941 that Ateneo bagged the men’s basketball and men’s football titles in one season. And Merida is the first Atenean to win a football title as a player and as a coach.
As the celebrating crowds thinned out. There was an unobtrusive reunions of sorts on the pitch. They were the two men who collectively led Ateneo to the three-peat of 2004-06 and the 2013 championship.
Arnulfo “Ompong” Merida and his nephew JP posed with the trophy. “Magaling si JP,” said the elder Merida. “Sana start ito ng panibagong championship run.”
The two walked towards the bench arm in arm.
And maybe that’s the best image to remember this championship season.
|Ompong and JP Merida: the last two men to lead Ateneo to a series of football championships. God bless you both!|
For the 2013 Ateneo Men's Football Team and the teams of 2008-12.
In 1941, Ateneo won the NCAA Football Championship when Simon La’O scored the game winning goal in the dying seconds of the game against La Salle. The La Salle keeper at that time was Louie Javellana who would later transfer to Ateneo and win a title with Spanish coach Teo Erenchun at the helm. The day after Ateneo won the ’41 NCAA title, the Japanese bombed the Philippines signaling the start of the Pacific War.
With the Blue Booters right before Game One.
Giving the Ateneo side a pep talk.
I had good teachers - Chris Monfort and Bert Honasan. Thanks for teaching me the game.
Much respect to Anto Gonzales, Frank Muescan and John Gutierrez. UP Fight!
Much respect to Anto Gonzales, Frank Muescan and John Gutierrez. UP Fight!