The old men of Letran

“Now, hail the men from old Letran
Tried are they, both good and true;
On their palm see victory’s tan.”

from an old Letran cheer

column-rick olivaresJOEMARI Sollano grabbed the offensive rebound. He tried to back the Arellano Chiefs’ Dioncee Holts but he didn’t budge an inch. Unable to dribble, Sollano threw an off-balanced pass to Mark Cruz that the Chiefs’ Jiovani Jalalon anticipated. He plucked the ball out of the air and scooted the opposite for a breakaway layup.

Letran Head Coach, Aldin Ayo, thrust his hands in his pockets and bowed his head keeping whatever angry thoughts he had to himself.

Behind Ayo, who himself donned the Knight’s blue and red colors some time ago, were members of the old and not so old guard. There was one of the school’s greatest ever in Freddie Webb who stood up and egged on the young Knights to chase Jalalon. A few seats away was its recent star, Kevin Alas and a teammate, Ford Ruaya. Near the bench stood former power forward—center Bryan Faundo and Kojak Melegrito. Several rows away were one of those who got away. A high school star at Letran before he departed for the University of the East—Roi Sumang, who had come to watch his former school.

Former Letran coach, Louie Alas, who guided the Knights to its last three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles, was also in the San Juan Arena in anticipation of the huge match with the Chiefs who supplanted Letran as the finals foe of San Beda last season. “We have to show support,” he enthused.

The Knights looked like they were going to absorb a painful loss that would have put them in a precarious situation in the chase for the top two seeds of the Final Four. That is until the fourth period when Letran dropped a mighty 30-12 windup for an 87-81 win that had Arellano University staring into space after the end of the match at the great opportunity they let slip away.

The Filoil Flying V Arena rocked as the thousand-plus Letran supporters sang their alma mater song with so much gusto it is as if they had won a title. “Tatak Letran win,” gushed Webb. “Playing hard up to the final buzzer.”

A championship. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Letran has 16 of them. They’d like a few more especially in this time of great change.

Perhaps the biggest underdog in the NCAA tournament, Letran, at least this year’s squad, not tabbed to compete for a Final Four slot has been taking down foes with some huge comebacks en route to a 12-4 record with two games to play. And once more, they escaped by the skin of their teeth with a resounding victory. The win allowed them to stay head above water against San Beda (via quotient), University of Perpetual Help, Jose Rizal University, and Arellano University.

Unseeded, not particularly deep, with no foreign player in the roster, these Knights are a proud bunch who does not know when to roll over and die. Explained Kevin Alas, “Tingin namin pag-finals, five-on-five lang ang match-up. Pagkatapos na lang ng finals namin na iniisip na doon nakalamang sa amin ’yung San Beda dahil kay Ola [Adeogun, the Red Lions massive Cameroonian center who concedes that he looks forward to playing and beating Letran]. But ganoon talaga kami. Mas gusto namin na all-Filipino line-up. Tignan natin this year, baka maka-sungkit ng panalo.”

Said an NCAA coach who asked to remain anonymous, “If Letran added a foreign player, they would have won a championship or two, maybe more. They have a very good local crew but have always lacked that big game center outside Raymond Almazan.”

Barbie Atienza, a Letranite who watches as many games as humanly possible had this to say, “Watching San Beda overtake our record for championships, it hurts. Siyempre, we’d like to keep the record but ganyan talaga. There are mixed feelings with regards to not winning but it’s a principled stand we are taking.”

The Knights have quite a few homegrown players in this year’s team. There’s Rey Nambatac who this year has become an even better player on both ends of the court. There’s guard McJour Luib who is finally contributing to his team’s cause after seeing very little playing time in past years. There’s Bong Quinto who went from bruiser to one who prefers to beat foes with his game intelligence. There are rookies Jerrick Balanza and Tommy Gedaria. And, of course, Mark Cruz, who is probably pound-for-pound, the best amateur basketball player in the game today.

There’s some urgency to this Season 91 it being the last playing year of star guard Mark Cruz and death-defying forward Kevin Racal. “These guys have been through so much,” noted Ayo of his two prized players. “To win a championship, it would be nice not only for the team and the Letran community but also for them.”

“Even if we don’t—knock on wood though,” added Atienza, “We will be back next year, giving it that old college try and with us cheering on our Knights. After all, that’s what we old men of Letran do.”