Looking back at the San Sebastian Staglets and an era of dominance
by rick olivares
In 2005, a juniors basketball team took to the hardcourt for the 81st season of the NCAA. The defending champions were the San Beda Red Cubs.
The Red Cubs had 14 NCAA Juniors titles to their name and in 2005, had won three straight.
There weren’t a lot of expectations for the San Sebastian Staglets as didn’t figure in the previous tourney’s Final Four. Furthermore, they featured a lot of freshmen and first-timers. The only senior was Eric Salamat. Paul Lee was a senior but it was his first year on the team. SSCR head coach Raymond Valenzona had brought in this talented player from Cavite named Ryan Buenafe who definitely had game but was raw. Valenzona started Buenafe at the power forward position with AJ Macasaet playing center. Although there were times when Buenafe played the slot.
“Payat pa si Ryan noon,” shared Salamat with a laugh. “Mas mabilis pa siya kay Borgie Hermida. Iniiwan pa niya sa fastbreak. Tapos power forward-center pa laro niya."
After defeating San Beda and Letran in a pre-season pocket tournament in Sta. Ana, Manila, it was only then the team realized they had potential.
They began taking apart teams with ease and aplomb losing only to Allan Mangahas’ PCU Baby Dolphins team to finish the elimination round with an 11-1 record. Once in the Final Four, they crushed the JRU Light Bombers, 95-82, before they took on the San Beda Red Cubs who featured Dave Marcelo at center, Melo Afuang (who went to UST for college) at the four, Tee-Gee Guillermo (who played for Mapua in college) at the three, Gelo Montecastro (who would play for CSB and then UP in the seniors division) at shooting guard, and Borgie Hermida running the point.
The Staglets had Macasaet and Buenafe at the five and four respectively. Anthony del Rio, who is one of two from that team to move the Stags seniors squad later, was the small forward. Raphy Reyes was the shooting guard while Salamat played the point.
They played a trapping defense that was merciless. Conversely, no one could press them because all the Staglets could bring down the ball. Teams like Letran and San Beda were taller but the Stags negated their disadvantage because of their trapping defense and run and gun style that left teams in the dust.
Once in the Finals, the Staglets took down San Beda in two matches to win the school’s second ever NCAA Juniors title (SSCR’s first title was in the 1986-97 season). Salamat was named the Finals MVP as he wreaked havoc on the Red Cubs with his defense and propensity to raid the passing lanes.
The Stags looked imperious that year and looked to dominate the NCAA’s Juniors division for the next few years with it up and coming talent (Almond Vosotros, Yutien Andrada, and Arvie Bringas). They also looked to move up to the seniors division to help the Stags become a power.
When Valenzona opted to stay in the Juniors division instead of replacing his father as head coach of the Stags (the job instead went to former FEU star George Gallent), the juniors players departed for other schools. Salamat went to Ateneo while Lee and Reyes went to UE.
Salamat recalls it was a difficult decision to leave. “If Raymond coached the seniors team, I and most certainly Paul and Raphy would have stayed,” he shared years later. “Parang siyang tatay talaga sa amin mga players. He cared for us a people and for the team. So para rin kaming pamilya — magkakapatid.”
But Salamat had no regrets moving to Loyola Heights. “It was my dad and I who made the decision to mag-Ateneo. Malaking opportunity at blessing for us. When I was younger, I think I was nine years old, naglaro ako sa SBP tournament na ginawa sa Ateneo Grade School. Sabi ko sa sarili ko sana makapag-aral dito. So I took the opportunity.”
Lee concurred with Salamat about staying with San Sebastian but he too says there are no regrets. “Sa UE nagkaroon ako ng magandang opportunity to ipakita yung ano kaya ko.” Lee led the Red Warriors to two Finals appearances in the UAAP although they lose to La Salle and Ateneo. Once in the PBA, Lee became an even bigger star that led to a stint with the national team in the FIBA World Cup of last year.
Buenafe led San Sebastian to two more high school titles in the NCAA and each year, he was named NCAA Finals MVP in 2006 and the Season and Finals MVP in 2007. He followed Salamat to Ateneo where he went on to win four seniors crowns with the Blue Eagles.
Almond Vosotros, Yutien Andrada, and Arvie Bringas would go to La Salle but the latter left after a year to move to FEU. Vosotros helped La Salle to a UAAP championship in 2013.
Anthony Del Rio won a championship with the San Sebastian Stags alongside Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang, and Ronald Pascual in 2009 where he played a key role. Erickson Gatchalian was supposed to be on that squad but he was out with a knee injury.
The Staglets would win one more title after Buenafe graduated from San Sebastian. But during the 2009-10 season, SSCR lost in the semifinals to Letran, 89-84, ending an era of dominance for the team from Recto.
San Sebastian Staglets
Season 81: 11-1 in the eliminations and 3-0 in F4 and Finals
Season 82: 9-3 in the eliminations and 3-0 in the F4 and Finals
Season 83: 8-2 in the eliminations and 3-0 in the F4 and the Finals
Season 84: 12-0 in the eliminations and 2-0 in the Finals (Finals MVP)