THE team that has gone the longest without winning the NCAA seniors basketball crown are the JRU Heavy Bombers. They last won the championship 40 years ago, in 1972, behind PBA legend Philip Cezar and Edgardo Carvajal, a 6-6 center who was supposed to be the PBA’s first dominant big man except that his career was tragically cut short. (Legend had it he suffered a concussion/ hemorrhage when he banged his head on the notoriously low ceiling leading from the dugout to the playing court at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum).
Seasons have come and gone. Super forward Vergel Meneses came into the team in the late 80s but he could not lift the club because he did not have much support. It was a different matter when he got to the pros, where the Aerial Voyager became a household name for his daredevil drives and scoring ability.
A decade later, Nani Epondulan led JRU to some prominence but they again fell short of the promised land. The Boy de Vera years also had some success, the team reaching the Final Four a couple of times (I think these were the Wynsjohn Te-MacDonald Santos years) but it was when Ariel Vanguardia took over in 2006 that JRU became a perennial contender.
Still, the JR Sena-John Wilson-Marvin Hayes-Mark Cagoco unit reached the finals only once, in 2008, where they lost to San Beda. Vanguardia reached the Final Four again in 2009 but left after the season after failing to come to terms with the school. For his replacement, the Heavy Bombers decided to go with a glorious name from their past, albeit someone with no head-coaching experience.
Eyebrows were raised when Meneses was named as JRU’s head coach, and although he will have the backing of consultant Derek Pumaren, not many thought he could keep the team competitive after losing Sena and Wilson. But they returned to the Final Four yet again, losing to San Sebastian in the stepladder after San Beda swept the elims.
Still, Meneses was viewed as being more lucky than good. In his early timeout huddles on TV, a lot of time would pass before he began giving instructions, or worse yet sometimes be unintelligible. But as the season wore on and the wins came with a scrappy crew, Meneses’ coaching acumen improved visibly.
Still, many thought 2011 would be a rebuilding year for JRU following the departure of Hayes and Cagoco and the team’s failure to keep its high school stars in the fold was seen as an indictment of the fledgling mentor. Yet the Heavy Bombers got enough experienced transferees to offset the loss of their Nigerians and despite every expert predicting JRU’s fall from the Final Four, they still made it as the fourth seed.
This season, while other teams made significant recruiting hauls, JRU practically stood pat and the move paid pff. They are again near the top of the standings, only a half-game behind second-running San Sebastian, which had a midseason coaching change and seems vulnerable. San Beda remains formidable, but is not the powerhouse it was in years past.
This means the stars seem to be aligning in JRU’s favor, 40 years after their last title. They have an experienced gunner in Nate Matute (John Wilson Lite), a solid slasher in Brian Villarias, an experienced point guard in Alex Almario and a core of hard-working big men led by the versatile John Lopez.
The only problem for Vergel Meneses’ crew is that in the past few years, they have been unable to win over the Red Lions and Golden Stags. They beat up everybody else most of the time, even perennial powerhouse Letran, but San Sebastian and San Beda. Could it be psychological?
Anyway, if they could somehow secure the twice-to-beat advantage this season by continuing their solid play, this could be the Bombers’ year.
Letran’s loss to San Beda coupled with Mapua’s win have muddled up the chase for the last Final Four slot, as UPHSD plays JRU on Monday and a loss by the Altas could really embolden those chasing them. EAC’s poor showing against the Cardinals, which ended its three-game winning streak, shows the Generals are simply not ready to become a contender yet.