CEBU CITY – The University of San Carlos Warriors hope they can finally do it this time.
Seven years after taking the mighty University of the Visayas to a winner-take-all match in the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation Inc. (Cesafi) Finals, the Warriors are looking to win it all the way as they take on the heavily-favored Southwestern University Cobras in the best-of-five title series that gets going on October 13.
Perhaps a short look at history dating back in 2007 would help this modern-day Warriors, who shared similar beliefs and are molded by ethics of hard work and toughness like their predecessors, help their cause of winning the championship.
Led by former MVP Enrico Llanto and fierce two-guard Nino Ramirez and mentored by ex-PBA player Jesus `Jay’ Ramirez and deputy Mike Reyes - ironically, now assistant coach of SWU – the then undersized Warriors took the Green Lancers to the hilt before eventually fading in the decisive Game Five of the series.
The Green Lancers were a powerhouse squad with a frontline bannered by now Ginebra big man Greg Slaughter, former Alaska forward Ariel Mepana, and an ex-PBL campaigner in 6-foot-7 Rino Berame, and a backcourt steered by Mythical Five member Chris Diputado (elder brother of NU guard Adven Jess Diputado) and Von Lanete (elder brother of current Gilas cadet Garvo Lanete).
“The road to get there was fun because of my teammates and coaches. Everyone was on the same page. We practiced as a team, we played as a team, and bonded like brothers. I never feared any team because I knew we had each other’s back all the time,” recalled Ramirez of that USC batch.
“We cruised our way to the finals against the only team to hand us a loss in that season. I bet we almost gave them a heart attack that season,” added Ramirez, who was recruited by Ateneo before deciding to come back home to play for USC.
The Warriors were indeed, fearless and shocked the Lancers in Game One, 69-61.
USC stalwart Paul Joven added, “It’s like everyday we were playing at a level that we wanted to get that crown. We trash-talked and pushed each other to the limit. We always argued on the court but outside, we were brothers. We ate together, we played internet games together, and seven years later, we still share the same bond.”
But the Lancers were quick to get back on track as they leaned on their heft and height to win Game Two (94-75) and Game Three (80-68) and moved on the verge of clinching their seventh straight title.
“It was very difficult mainly because of how undersized we were. Every game leading to the finals was won by heart. It was a very, very steep climb. UV was the best team during that season since it has a complete lineup with size and experience,” said forward Gene Gallarde, a defensive ace who had the unenviable job of covering UV’s platoon of guards which also included Ritchum Dennison and former D-League player Harlow Villanil.
Still, the Warriors believed in themselves, never mind being blown away by the Green Lancers, 93-77, for their lone loss in the eliminations.
“I remember losing to UV by 16 in the elimination round and the team was so down. But the coaching staff picked us all up and told us to get them in the championship round,” narrated Joven.
“So when the time came to face them once again, it was really a memorable match-up. They had (Greg) Slaughter and the average height of their frontline was 6-foot-6. Our tallest guy was only 6-foot-4.”
Ramirez stole the spotlight in Game Four, scoring 27 points to hand the Warriors a thrilling 80-77 win fashioned out before a packed-to-the-rafters crowd that included a cross-dressing man who bore a sign asking Ramirez to marry him.
The victory tied the series at 2-2 and set the stage for one final match for all the marbles.
“Game Four was very memorable. I was so happy with the win but at the same time disheartened that I was not included in the Mythical Five. How could a guy not be in that class if he led the league in scoring? I took that personally and took it out on UV,” said Ramirez, who is now based in Canada.
But the Lancers showed they’re head and shoulders above the Warriors after rolling to an 82-71 win to claim the title.
The loss ended the Warriors’ pursuit of a first ever Cesafi championship, a chase that continues to this day – a search which the Warriors of yesteryears hope would finally be accomplished this season.
“I hope they can win it all. Honestly, I’m praying for them to do that. I hope all alumni and students of USC will watch every game because believe me, in our time, our sixth man was the crowd. They really gave us that extra push and energy to compete in every game,” added Joven.
Gallarde remembers the massive crowd that trooped to the Cebu Coliseum during that 2007 title series and to this day, still gets goosebumps.
“Two words: the crowd. It was epic. I've never been a part of something like that my entire life. The coliseum was filled all the way to the general admission. It was pretty surreal.”