Retooled Valenzuela squad featuring Esplana and Balundo goes for back-to-back titles in Junior PBA Youngstars tourney
There are only five holdovers from last year's champion squad but Valenzuela is confident it can compete for the title.

JAIRUS Esplana, a 15-year-old University of Santo Tomas Team B member, teams up with another redshirt for University of the East in Rey Balundo as they try to lead Valenzuela to back-to-back championships in the Coca-Cola Junior PBA Youngstars that unreels on April 18 at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

The squad swept the summer tournament for 13- to 16-year olds last year but only five of the 12 players in the championship squad are set to return. Several players were not allowed by their respective NCAA schools to join, while others are already over the age limit, including last year’s MVP in Brian Lacap and mythical team member Juan Carlo Garcia.

Now Jairus Esplana, son of former PBA star Gerry Esplana, along with Balundo, take the spotlight as Valenzuela City starts its title defense.

Valenzuela coach Mark Mañosca expects an arduous climb back to the top with basically a new lineup lacking in height.

“It’s going to be very tough,” said Mañosca, who will be forced to play Esplana, a 5-foot-11 guard, as a power forward. “We’re a small team with only one legit center. But we’ll just be there fighting at the same time enjoying the game.”

Valenzuela won all its seven games last year — five in the elimination round and two games in the knockout stage, turning back Taguig, 52-44, in the semifinals, before prevailing against Manila, 64-52, in the finals.

The defending champions are bracing for tough competition with representatives from Antipolo, Cainta, Caloocan, Las Pinas, Malabon, Marikina, , Muntinlupa, Paranaque, Pasig, Quezon City, and San Juan seeing action.

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