The best college basketball team you have never heard of is battling for respect
by rick olivares
In three days’ time, NAASCU (National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities) caging gets underway at the Cuneta Astrodome.
Fourteen teams will be vying for the crown that has been vacated by Centro Escolar University that has left the league for unspecified reasons. Among the favorites to win the championship is St. Clare College that has lost the last three years running to CEU in the title game.
If you ask St. Clare College Saints head coach Jino Manansala whether the Scorpions are playing or not, the goal is to win it all this year. “We feel we have the team to win this since some of our players from the juniors team have come up,” said Manansala who guided SCC to its first league title during the 2012-13 season but has since been stymied.
The Saints just like CEU are some of Philippine college ball’s best kept secrets. When they were invited as a guest team several years ago in the Filoil Flying V Premier Cup, they played the NCAA and UAAP teams close; losing only in the final two minutes of play. They have also played well in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League and most recently made waves in the Milcu Got Skills tournament where they defeated De La Salle University for the crown. And most recently, in the PBA D-League, many of them suited up for Racal Motors.
“I think people are starting to know our school,” said six-foot-six Cameroonian center Steve Fongue.
The Yaounde native has a lot of friends in the local basketball scene. He’s friends with countrymen La Salle’s Ben Mbala and National University’s Alfred Aroga while former University of the East center Betrand Awana was a teammate of his back in high school. “We’ve had some good matches with them in recent times,” added Fongue. “Now they know our name.”
They sure do. In fact, the Bulldogs recruited two of their players.
But make no mistake, these hungry Saints are hungry to make a name for themselves.
“I think it’s hard when you played in the smaller leagues,” noted Manansala. “People don’t mind you.”
In fact, the first SCC alum to be drafted in the PBA is Milan Vargas who was selected by the Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters in the fifth round of the 2015 PBA Draft. Although some people opine that it was his brief stint with the UST Growling Tigers in the UAAP that introduced him to a mass audience.
While players from the NCAA, UAAP, and CESAFI (outside the Fil-foreigners) are generally drafted, many other NAASCU schools have seen their players drafted once in a blue moon. PSBA has seen its Jaguars alumni Mark Pingris and Vic Manuel) make it big. CEU’s recent title teams have seen Alfred Batino, Joseph Sedurifa, Samboy De Leon all drafted. Heck, New Era College saw its first players selected in 2002 and 2003 in Paolo Malonzo (40th overall in the seventh round by FedExpress) and Ramil Ferma (by Red Bull Thunder) respectively. Even Manuel L. Quezon University has had two picks by the San Miguel Beermen in Marlon Legaspi and Arnold Calo who were both drafted in 2003.
Despite their manpower losses to NU, Manansala’s Saints remain stacked and loaded.
There’s spitfire point guard Paeng Rebulio who is both crafty and shifty and can score from anywhere. Rebulio once played for Vergel Meneses over at Jose Rizal University but he opted to transfer just to get minutes. “I know it’s the NCAA and you’ll be seen on television and written about by media,” said the Hulo, Mandaluyong native. “But I need to play and show what I can do.”
Aris Dionisio is part of SCC’s tough frontline along with Mark Puspus, Godwill Calapine, and Fongue. The Bulacan native once played for Philip Cezar’s PSBA Jaguars but opted to transfer. “I like this team’s work ethic,” said Dionisio. “I want to give it my all so we can give glory to school. If we get drafted in the PBA and what player doesn’t dream of that — that is good.”
Manansala will also count on high scoring guards Nico Principe and Michael De Leon, forwards Jordan Rios, Rey De Mesa, and Macky Perez.
“One of the things I have to watch out for is giving everyone minutes,” explained Manansala who is the son of former PBA great Jimmy Manansala. The son was once team captain for Aric Del Rosario’s UST teams of the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium. “I try to give every one their minutes. The only thing I ask is that when they are on the floor, they give their best at all times.”
With CEU’s departure, some say that the door is wide open for St. Clare to reclaim the crown. “I don’t think so,” parried Manansala. “There are 14 teams in the league this season. It’s going to be a very long one. At any time things can change because of injuries, fitness and conditioning, and other factors. We just have to take it one game at the time and when we get to the play-offs, hope we’re still solid.”
Nevertheless, these Saints are insanely talented, deep, tough, hungry, and well, fun to watch.
“Right now, we’re playing for respect.”
The 2016-17 St. Clare College Saints: Paeng Rebugio, Irven Palencia, Nico Principe, Michael De Leon, Ronjay Santos, Russel Funetes, Jordan Rios, Rey De Mesa, Macky Perez, Normel De Los Reyes, Junjie Hallare, Bong Managuelod, Aris Dionisio, Godwill Calapine, Steve Fongue, Mark Puspus, and Leo Esguerra.
The Saints open their NAASCU campaign this Thursday, August 25 at 10am versus AMA Computer College at the Cuneta Astrodome.