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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Defending the Crown: The Story of the Ateneo Men’s Football Team’s Back-to-Back Championship Season

I wrote this in 2005 for the now defunct Team Ateneo website (put up by former Lady Eagle Donna Reyes). And re-posting this also as a tribute to former Blue Booters captain Mickey Ingles who topped the recent bar exams. OBF!!!

Defending the Crown
The Story of the Ateneo Men’s Football Team’s Back-to-Back Championship Season
by rick olivares

The season ended very much the way it started – down to the wire with the slimmest of margins for a heart-stopping win.

A milli-second after UST’s Mark Undag’s penalty shot hit the crossbar -- “Please, God, don’t let it bounce in,” prayed graduating midfielder Gian Achacoso – the Ateneo Men’s Football Team and its coaches and supporters rushed onto the field in raucous celebration  bringing to a close a match that had taken more than two hours to play.

Behind the streamer that boldly exhorted the team to Defend the Crown in 2005, a tongue-tied Coach Ompong Merida could only say, “Mission accomplished! Mission accomplished!”

Who would have thought it would turn out to be this way. Who indeed?

In Season 66, the team shocked all pre-season prognosticators by beating title-favorite UP to snatch Ateneo’s third UAAP football title and first since 1999. “We kinda snuck in there took everyone by surprise,” revealed central back Patrick Ozaeta, who won last season’s Rookie of the Year and Best Defender Awards. “In the pre-season, we hardly won anything – kulelat kami. But when we made the semis in the Globe Super Cup, where the best teams and clubs in the whole country compete, we knew that we had a chance.”

“Kasama namin sa Final Four ang military teams: Army, Navy and Air Force,” explained Coach Ompong Merida who after taking over the reins of the college football team from the late Chris Monfort, guided the seniors varsity to three straight finals appearances and the 1999 championship. “Ang tatlo na yan ang pinaka-elite sa Philippine football teams. Kami na lang ang natira sa mga clubs at college teams. The fact that we made it sa semis means na yung team is coming together and getting better.”

Despite bagging the 2004 UAAP title, the team still wasn’t given much respect to defend the title as the experts seeded FEU and UST to do battle for the crown in Season 67. “That’s okay because the pressure was a little easier to handle early on,” explained Ozaeta.

Vince Santos, who was the MVP of Ateneo’s 1996 Football Champion team and currently the Ateneo Football Program Head, expounded further on the team’s low seeding: “When you match up our team, man for man, against the line-ups of the others, mas malakas talaga yung iba. I’d say third or fourth lang tayo if we were to be graded. FEU and UST alone are stocked with national players. But what we have are players who are more tactically sound and that gives us a huge edge.”

Coach Ompong concurred, “Totoo yan, yung speed of thought. Mental edge ng team yan. But another equally determining factor sa success ng team is halos lahat ay homegrown talent kaya matindi ang school pride nila. That is something the other schools don’t have kasi halos lahat mga recruits from the outside.”

When right midfielder Mickey Ingles twisted the La Salle keeper’s ankles with a wicked crossover on a nifty one-on-one move to break a 2-2 tie in the season opener, the rest of the league began to take them seriously.  The opposition started to go at them full throttle, eager to knock Ateneo down from its lofty perch. But the team deftly and convincingly took on all comers on its way to an undefeated first round with the sole draw coming at the hands of dangerous UST who likewise kept pace with Ateneo.

Despite the gaudy record, no one expected any smooth sailing. Nor did they expect to lose a game which would eventually go on to be the defining moment of the season. “We were feeling a little too overconfident for our own good thinking that we could possibly go undefeated,” summed up the team’s tough-as-nails left midfielder Roger Lastimado.

Ozaeta confirmed this, “In the first round game against UP, we were on the defensive the entire first half aside from being down 0-1. Coach Ompong told us at the half that we lacked intensity and that it was important to come out in the second half with a lot of energy and to seize control of the game. We did that scoring two goals and keeping UP in their end of the field the rest of the way. After that game, we all knew that we could go all the way.”

But lying in ambush at the start of the second round was that other pre-season favorite, the FEU Tamaraws. Still in the running for a finals berth, the upset-conscious Morayta-based eleven came out playing tough defense. Despite being on the defensive almost all game, the Tamaraws managed to keep the score tied at 1-1 while repeatedly repulsing one Ateneo sortie after another. In the final minutes of regulation, Ateneo’s defense, which had been rock solid throughout the season, failed to check a lone FEU striker who kicked the ball over three defenders and arced away from Ateneo keeper James Dalang’s outstretched hands at the last moment for a 2-1 lead.

Minutes later, as the final whistle cut short a desperate end game attack by the Blue Booters, any dreams of an undefeated season were shattered. Ateneo suffered its first loss of the season. The team’s high-scoring offense, which would go on to score a tournament-high 19 goals, was held in check. The sight of the joyous Tamaraws celebrating in Ateneo’s home field was a painful and galling sight for many. Achacoso winced at the memory, “Talagang bad trip yun. I hate losing. It’s something I just never get used to.”

During the singing of the alma mater, you could feel the team’s disappointment as they stood around in a daze. “Wake up call yun sa amin,” confessed Ingles, the team captain. “Masyado kaming overconfident,” Lastimado succinctly explained.

Coach Ompong was quick to use this loss as a motivational factor in getting the team back on track. “Hindi tayo pwedeng mag-relax,” reminded the multi-titled coach who has been one of the architects of the ascendance of Ateneo football. “Let’s not think of a championship first. One game at a time muna. Basta run the system. Stay focused. Believe in one another and we’ll get there.”   

After that jarring reminder that the team had a long way to go, the Blue Booters vented their ire on a hapless UE eleven by bamboozling them for four goals. “Dapat pa nga, five yun,” pointed out Lastimado, who nearly scored a hat trick, referring to an offside call that disallowed a goal.

After drawing once more with UST, 1-1, Ateneo had secured a finals berth and more importantly, a twice-to-beat advantage because of its superior quotient. “Even if we lost our last two games (against DLSU and UP), we’d still be the team to beat. That’s how far ahead we were,” exclaimed one long time follower of the team.

“Lose our last two games? Not a chance,” said Ingles, the team’s heart and soul. “You don’t want to give these teams any idea that they can beat you.”

And they did that and more. Against the Green Archers, Lastimado scored another of Season 67’s most memorable goals. With the game still scoreless midway in the second half, Ateneo’s prodigious scorer was able to break away with only one defender between him and the keeper. “I wanted to dribble it a little closer but the defender was anticipating that move,” recounted Lastimado. “I saw the keeper move out a little farther from the goal so I decided to kick a high arcing shot over him. That was really a special goal because it was for the win and it was against La Salle.”  

Ateneo then wrapped up a successful elimination round with a 3-1 thrashing of UP then it was onto the Finals and a shot at history --- “harvest time” as Coach Ompong called it. No Ateneo Men’s Football team has ever won back-to-back titles in the UAAP. The last time a seniors football team accomplished that feat was in 1954-55 when the good old Blue and White was doing battle in the NCAA.

Standing in their way were the UST Tigers who made it on the strength of a better quotient than FEU. Yet despite the twice-to-beat advantage, the Ateneo coaching staff knew they had to come out with a whole lot of intensity in order to match their opponents’ physical game for the two teams had battled twice so far and each time to a standstill.

And to a standstill they played once more. After UST’s Jay Legpitan scored in the 10th minute off a rebound after Ateneo keeper Galang dropped the ball off a free kick, central back Mark Villon scored the equalizer in the 24th minute this time off a header from a well-placed free kick by Achacoso. The game was marred by numerous injuries to both teams. In fact, Ingles had to leave late in the first overtime because of cramps. “I was upset at myself,” said the team’s pint-sized dynamo. “Not at this late stage of the game. Not during the championship. I felt as if I was letting the team down.”

Still unable to break the tie after two ten-minute extra periods, it was finally going to come down to a penalty shootout. Behind the thunderous roar of the Blue Babble Battalion who all season long exhorted the team to reach deep from within for that one big fight, Coach Ompong, who did his best to conceal his nervousness, imparted his last instructions of the season to his tired yet willing players: “Sabi ko sa kanila, bago ninyo I-take yung penalty kick, dapat alam ninyo kung saan ilalagay yung bola. Pag nagpalit kayo ng tira ng last minute mas malaki ang chance na mag-miss. Hamon ko nga sa kanila, pag nagpalit sila ng tira nila, eh hindi ko na sila kaibigan. But I knew they’d all make their shots.”

Their coaches’ levity and confidence helped calm the players. “The thing about penalty kicks,” said Ozaeta shaking his head, “is that there are no certainties. Even the best in the world miss shots from time to time.” Chipped in Achacoso, “Sometimes, it all boils down to who’s going to make the first mistake.”

And sure enough, that’s what happened. Up to the very last moment, the Ateneo-UST game played out the standstill script to the hilt: eight times did players from each side troop to the penalty area and eight times did the players from each side score. After Matt Jaucian made his shot to put Ateneo up 9-8, it was up to UST’s Undag to keep the game going despite the fast-fading sunlight.

While everyone moved to the northern side of the field to get a better view of the shootout, Coach Ompong did the opposite and went back to the bench and lay down! Explained the coach, “Sa right side ko ang UST, sa left side ang Ateneo. Pag may narinig akong sigaw sa right side, naka-score ang UST. Pag sumigaw yung nasa left side ko, naka-score yung Ateneo. Bilang ko nun, 9-8 para sa atin, hinihintay kong sumigaw yung nasa right side eh ang sumigaw ang nasa left. Tumayo na ako. Panalo Ateneo.”   

As Undag’s sorry miss ended UST’s championship dreams, fireworks lit up the rapidly darkening Katipunan sky to celebrate Ateneo’s own dream season: a back-to-back title, their fourth UAAP Football crown, and 8th title overall since the NCAA days.  

And what a season it was -- down to the wire with the slimmest of margins for a heart-stopping win.

Epilogue One:
“MVP! MVP!” the team chanted as Pat Ozaeta, Coach Ompong’s designated defensive coordinator, picked up his second straight Defensive Player of the Year Award in the ceremony after the game. And a few minutes later, Ozaeta  picked up a second award – this one for being named the league’s Most Valuable Player – amidst thunderous cheer from his teammates.

“Dat dat daaa da da ... da da ... dat dat daaa da da ... da da.” Gian Achacoso led the team chant of Gary Glitter’s “Rock And Roll Part 2”, that staple of sporting chants that has come to be more popularly known as the “Hey Song.”

“Sobrang galeng nito,” beamed Ozaeta. “To win back-to-back championships, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Awards, yung Rookie of the Year Award nung isang taon, tapos yung MVP ‘tong season ... wow!”

Added the newly-minted league MVP, “Si Coach Ompong pag nag-kwento ng heroic or inspirational moments, lagi siya nagre-refer sa 1999 champion team. Siguro naman, pag-graduate na kami, mga kwento niya sa mga team na susunod sa amin, eh, tungkol sa back-to-back championship teams namin.”

Epilogue Two:
Less than 24 hours after the Ateneo won its 4th UAAP Football title and 8th since the NCAA, I returned to the scene of the previous night’s stirring victory. Gone were the Gatorade bottles, plastic cups, hotdog sticks, and the tell-tale signs of a fireworks display that littered Field One the day before. It was now swept clean. As if the field was never witness to a game for the ages.

But by the northern goal, where the penalty shootout was held, there were six Ateneo Grade School kids (all in the AFC) kicking a football around.

“Ako si Roger,” said the biggest of the kids.

“Ang daya mo naman,” protested a bespectacled one.

“Ikaw na lang si Mickey,” said the big one trying to appease his friend.

“Sinong Mickey – there are two of them,” noted another.
“The small one,” said a now exasperated big kid.

“I know, I’ll be the MVP ... my dad told me his name. Ozaeta, I think,” announced the kid with glasses with finality.

“Sige, I’ll be Ozaeta, tapos ikaw na lang si Roger,” said the big kid.

“Ang daya mo talaga. If you’re not the scorer, you’re always the MVP,” cried out still another kid.

“Ah, why don’t you be the goal keeper from UST,” growled the big kid.

It went on for another few minutes. A standstill.

Then they began taking penalty kicks.

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