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, February 21, 2015

Ateneo Blue Eaglets: An 18th Juniors Title to Savor

Mission accomplished. One High Five.

An 18th championship to savor
by rick olivares

Let me celebrate this 18th UAAP Juniors title by waxing romantic, historical, and sentimental like the Guidon writers of a bygone age.

Is this how the Roman Emperor Majorian felt after beating back the barbarian hordes after the battles of Lucus Augusti and Scallabis in the year 460? Of course, I do not mean to really compare the National University Bullpups to the Goths and only say it only figuratively. Majorian was the last Roman Emperor to try and unify as well as regain lost territory to ever encroaching hordes from the east. Soon after his death, the greatest empire the world has ever known crumbled once more but only this time they were consigned to the pages of history.

You see, since the last championship of the Blue Eaglets in 2011 when Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, Paolo Romero and a skinny freshman named Jay Javelosa nailed the tail end of a three-peat, the scholastic athletic landscape saw a new power rising from the environs of the east, the far east, and Mendiola… National University. And across the alphabet soup leagues that dot this country, the game has changed stratospherically, athletically, and financially.

With college sports now the playground (although some will think the word “battlefield” to be more apt) of taipans, amateurism is dead and buried six feet under.

If anyone took making the Juniors Finals as an annual rite or a divine right, then that is no longer the case. While Ateneo has pretty much ruled the UAAP Juniors division, other schools have also given very good accounts for themselves.

The Ateneo Blue Eaglets when you think about it have no right beating a team like the National University Bullpups. Those kids are taller, more athletic, and deeper.

To the casual observer, the Blue Eaglets just go by their Big Three who will be collectively be known here as MattMikeJolo. 

There are times when you may have cringed and wondered, “What in the world is Joe Silva doing? Why is MattMikeJolo on the bench?”

In years past, the Blue Eaglets were built with the best offensive players that Silva had at his disposal. After the painful loss in last year’s junior finals, a fateful conversation with an old mentor occurred.

Silva spoke with the man who he replaced on the Eaglets’ sideline – Jamike Jarin. “Go back to basics – what we were and who we are.”

There’s a reason why there is that massive banner that hangs at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center. You may have read or heard about it: “Defense wins championships.”

Silva built a team with defensive players to complement MattMikeJolo. Then they went back to their terrorizing full court press/high-risk-high-reward ways.

Mike never guarded the powerful Mark Dyke. Not at least for too long as Shaun Ildefonso, Jossier Hassan and at times, Brix Ramos platooned on NU’s bruising and athletic forward. Matt didn’t cover the talented Philip Manalang – Gian Mamuyac and Enzo Joson did.

It was all about defense.

The senior shooting guard felt bad that he was playing three minutes a game. As a shooter, he needed his minutes to get into a rhythm. Salandanan came in with two minutes played in the second period. His first contribution in the final series? He stole the ball from Dyke from the blind side and fed Joson on the break who was fouled. That made it 26-25. And the next eight minutes and eight seconds will be forever remembered for that blitz when Jolo Mendoza went into a zone while on defense they just flat out killed NU. As for Salandanan? He nailed a deadeye three on transition at the left corner pocket for a 52-34 lead they took into the half. In the second half, he got Manalang on a charge (for his fourth foul), forced Dave Camaso to a stepping violation… and he hit another three.

Defense first and let the offense flow from it.

However, no post-game recap or analysis will be complete without Mendoza’s incredible shooting performance.

We have seen some great shooting performances from Jolo but when was the last time he was in a zone like this?

Jig Mendoza, his father and ex-UP Fighting Maroon who is currently an assistant for Barako Bull: (struggles to find the answer at first then laughs) "FIBA during the U-16 World Championships in Iran where they finished second to China. Against Greece, the United States."

If you ask Silva, Jet Nieto (the Nieto twins’ father), or the players themselves, they will credit the FIBA experience as what helped them get better. They paid for it though as they played eight matches in the space of 10 days. Add the two days of travel time back home and they were spent. They arrived back in Manila had one practice with Ateneo and played against Hubert Cani and the NU Bullpups; a series they lost.

If you look at tape during that Finals, they couldn’t run anymore. The twins and Mendoza just didn’t have the legs. And in one game, Mendoza missed a crucial free throw that hurt their chances of winning.

But they have never made that as an excuse.

In fact, it ate at them.

Mendoza recalls the somber locker room scene as Thirdy Ravena and Aaron Black were in tears. “I failed them,” Mendoza recalled. “We (the current edition of the Blue Eaglets) made a promise to win it this year for them and four the graduating seniors (the Nietos, Ramos, Salandanan, and Japeth Moreno).

After that finals loss, Mendoza too was inconsolable. He cried at home. Late at night, Jamike Jarin gave him a call. They spoke and went back to that missed free throw.

“Go out and shoot two free throws (the Mendoza’s have a hoop at their home),” instructed Jarin.

After that, Jarin asked, “Pasok ba yung dalawa?”

“Yes, coach.”

“Yan. Okay ka na.”

And Mendoza felt better.

After the woeful Game One loss to NU in this Finals series, Kiefer Ravena took Mendoza aside and they worked on his moves the following day. And throughout the series, Ravena offered valuable advice on the sidelines.

MattMikeJolo have been teammates since Grade Three at the Ateneo. And that is the other secret to this team’s success. They all knew each other so well. All the moves, strong sides, and weak sides.

In Game 2, Mike Nieto poked the ball away from Dyke who collared a defensive rebound. He saved the ball from going out of bounds and in one motion handed the ball off to Mendoza who had the presence of mind to move into position at the right corner pocket. Hand off, turn and it was a screen for Mendoza. Three!

At the 2:51 mark of the third period and the score 58-49, Ateneo, Mendoza went in for a layup, missed and dove for the ball that was going out of bounds and what would have been NU’s ball. Mendoza whipped a behind the back pass to Mike Nieto who was underneath the basket for an undergoal stab. The San Juan Arena erupted into massive cheers from the blue and white supporters.

That is the kind of teamwork and chemistry that can only come from having played with one another for so long.

When NU made a run to cut the lead down to five, 74-69, after a John Clemente jumper, MattMikeJolo were on the bench.

At this point, you may have wondered, "Why didn’t Silva have his Big Three in the game?"

It’s equal parts strategy and gamble. In Game One, MattMikeJolo played lots of minutes and they got tired in the end. All season long, Silva rationed their playing time to keep them away from foul trouble and fresh for the endgame.

Now with ample rest, they re-entered the fray.

Mendoza jumper at the 5”03 mark, 76-69.

Matt steal, fouled by Clemente with Daniel Atienza called for an unsportsmanlike foul after shoving the Ateneo point guard to the floor.

Matt hit all four free throws. What was a seven-point deficit had ballooned to an 11-point Blue Eaglets lead.

A defensive stop, Mendoza attacks, Clemente makes the mistake of giving him the lane instead of forcing him along the baseline. Dyke cuts his path. Mendoza whips a pass to Matt who is all alone at the right corner pocket. Bang! It’s 83-69 with 3:28 to play. My hair is standing up and so must everyone else’s who hails from Loyola Heights.

Even with two minutes to play and Philip Manalang fouls out (he is NU’s most clutch player), everyone knows this is a wrap. Players and friends hug Silva by the sidelines. The coach is in tears.

He lost his mother right before the finals of Season 76. “It was the hardest thing to do,” admitted Silva. “To grieve and coach at the same time. But my mom wouldn’t have it any other way. She would have wanted me there with the team. So this championship is for her.”

This championship is for Coach Joe who never won it while he donned the Blue Eaglets' colors (Alwyn Espiritu’s UST squad was in their way). And now, he is forever etched in Ateneo sports history.

And this championship too is for everyone who went to Loyola Heights. The elimination round sweep and the finals win aside, this title (as were the previous ones) was not an easy one to win. And it will never be. As much as there are good players coming up for the Eaglets it is still not going to be easy.

Every team is going to reload. Some teams are losing key players. However, some like La Salle will remain very good. NU will dig deep into its Team B, C, and D to fill up the spots that will be vacated by Manalang, Dyke, and company.

This will be the shortest time a reigning Juniors champion will get to hold on to that trophy as come next school year, the tournament will be played alongside the seniors once more.

So savor this. Enjoy it.

I have been watching the Blue Eaglets play since 1983. The only time I can probably say that the Eaglets practically rolled over everyone and a title was in the bag was in 1986 when a tall and skinny center by the name of Danny Francisco and a point guard by the name of Olsen Racela carried Ateneo to a 14-game sweep and an outright championship. No one came close to them. No one. They flat out destroyed everyone even during a fight-marred match like the one against La Salle at the old Loyola Center.

And so watching the San Juan Arena erupt into cheers, songs, and yells that made my hair stand up and my blue-blood rise from its year-long stupor – and no one cheers like the Ateneo High School; no one – I thought of Majorian (I am a history buff and have read extensively on the Roman Empire) who howled at the change and fought back to save the decline of Western Civilization.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. All I know is these championships that we all get greedy about are getting harder to come by more so with the winds of change swirling all around us.

So we should savor this because they earned this.

However let me leave you with this thought – we have 11 titles from the NCAA Juniors and 18 in the UAAP.

The trophy is back in Loyola Heights.

Blue Eaglets the King.

AMDG + OBF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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