IT wasn’t too long ago when Roi Sumang blurted out in abject frustration “sawang sawa na kami sa kakatalo.”
That was about six years ago when the University of the East (UE) Red Warriors showed signs of life and competitiveness under then balik-coach Boycie Zamar. That team won a smattering of off-season titles but eventually crashed and burned in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP). I was inside their locker room when their season ended at the hands of Ateneo one year and National University (NU) in the next. The tears flowed freely about dreams unfulfilled and of college seasons that were over.
There seemed to be hope in the first two seasons of Derrick Pumaren before a number of key players left for various reasons. The famed or dreaded Pumaren Press (depending on which side of the spectrum you belong to) tantalized. But eventually, they became pressed for answers.
And now, for the nth time since 1985 the last time the Red Warriors won the UAAP championship, UE is reloading. A program is supposedly in place. But hasn’t there been one since well, years ago?
It doesn’t matter though. What matters is now.
It’s just a few days over a month when former UE head coach Lawrence Chongson returned to oversee the “new program.” It’s a curious mix in the coaching staff. Head coach Joe Silva and strength and conditioning coach Paolo Romero hail from Katipunan Avenue. Silva and Romero played for Ateneo although the latter donned the University of the Philippines colors for college. There’s Gian Nazario who hails from La Salle, and Ton Brodett who calls San Beda his alma mater. But there’s UE red too in the form of former star Paul Artadi who is part of the coaching staff.
“We got people from three of the best basketball programs in the country and if that doesn’t help us win, I don’t know what will,” quipped Chongson before the team’s loss to UP in the Filoil Flying V Preseason Cup.
The team had a chance to win against the Fighting Maroons but a tight pass by Alvin Pasaol to Rey Acuno inside the lane was pilfered by UP’s Bright Akhuetie and that was it.
Before their match against the Bulldogs, Silva, who is fresh from his second UAAP juniors championship with the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, told the Red Warriors in very clear terms that he wanted a win. “We’ve not beaten a UAAP team yet,” underscored Silva. “I want to get one today.”
The Red Warriors have been impressive in their past few outings. They have gone from being the Alvin Pasaol Show to the UE Red Warriors. Well, they are. But they were literally in the red.
“Ibalik natin ‘yung palag,” exhorted Silva.
It was a curious battle, too. A match of wits. Silva apprenticed under NU coach Jamike Jarin over at Ateneo where they won a bunch of titles. Jarin went to San Beda, won a National Collegiate Athletic Association title, and now he is hoping that NU will not have to wait another 61 years before another championship.
Jarin has a talented team up and down the bench. They are kind of short in the frontline, but if they do get it to work, they’ll be a tough team. Am not sure though if they are hungry like UE. The Red Warriors have different motivations. They are not only hungry but they want respect. Now that’s a tough combo. And the Red Warriors pulled out a win.
For now, the padawan got one over the Jedi Master (a day earlier, College of Saint Benilde coach TY Tang was unable to best his mentor, Fran Pumaren as the Blazers fell to the Adamson University Falcons).
Chongson thought out loud, “Alvin should also be considered for Gilas.”
It will mean a lot for the program should one of the Red Warriors be considered for the national team. However, right now, the focus is the here and now. Getting better and sharing that basketball.
When Acuno fumbled the pass, it was more out of surprise because the big man isn’t used to be on the receiving end of passes much less given shot attempts. But the big fella out of Cebu has played a different role for Silva and these UE Red Warriors. Sort of like how Isaac Go is used for Ateneo. A jump shooting big man who can stretch defenses.
Along with another solid big man in Will Bartolome, they form a tough tag team at center.
During the pre and post-game huddle with the team, Silva talks about how the team has to be smart about its play. The coach knows that they can be just that. After all, later noted Nazario, they have players who know how to win. The Chiang Kai Shek High School contingent won a lot of titles—Shannon Gagate, Nick Abanto, Rafael Toribio, Bartolome, and rookie Jojo Antiporda. Brothers Philip and Paul Manalang came from a winning NU high school program.
In the new jack offense, Jason Varilla and Chris Conner, previously under-achieving players, have vital roles and are helping their team. Jason Strait, if he can build on his solid game during the Gilas match, can make also be a big time player for the team.
There is still a long way to go. But there’s a different air to the team.
Said one UAAP coach, “Wow, may play na ang UE.” The remark isn’t meant to disparage anyone. But it sure denotes something different.That instead of an opportunistic press, they now have another option. With former Ateneo Blue Eagles John Apacible and Brix Ramos scheduled to join the team for next season, the team is getting a massive facelift.
“Sawa na kami matalo,” echoed Philip Manalang after the win over NU.
It is tempting to say déjà vu. But some people have short memories. In a way that is good. Because at this right for the UE Red Warriors…now is all about moving forward.