THE 2015 Far Eastern University team continues to produce PBA players five years since that batch of Tamaraws captured the UAAP crown.
The batch welcomed two new players to the professional league, based on the rosters submitted by the teams during the opening of the 2020 PBA season, in Wendell Comboy and Barkley Eboña, bringing to eight the number of FEU players from that championship team who are now in the next level.
Already in the PBA prior to the entry of Comboy and Eboña were UAAP Season 78 Finals MVP Mac Belo, Roger Pogoy, Mike Tolomia, Russell Escoto, Ron Dennison, and Raymar Jose. Comboy and Eboña were UAAP seniors basketball rookies when FEU won the UAAP crown.
The list doesn’t even include Richard Escoto, who was not part of the roster since he was still playing for Iloilo in the MPBL during the time the rosters were released.
With the exception of Nigerian Prince Orizu, other members of that squad are still very active, with Alfrancis Tamsi, Achie Inigo, Joe Trinidad and Monbert Arong playing in the regional commercial league MPBL.
The architect of the 2015 team was Nash Racela, who won on the third year in charge of the Tamaraws. Racela was tapped to handle San Beda Red Lions in the NCAA in 2004 but his first coaching stint in collegiate basketball was short lived as he was replaced midway through the 2005 season.
Racela said the abundance of FEU players in the PBA was only a by-product of winning the championship.
“Nung mga panahon na ‘yun bago kami mag-champion, hindi namin masyadong iniisip ‘yan. But alam namin na as players, ‘yan ang gusto nila,” said Racela, referring to his players making it to the PBA. “One challenge na binigay namin sa kanila was kung gusto nilang mag-PBA, kailangan nilang magtulong-tulong at kailangan nilang manalo ng championship.”
Racela said the challenge during that time was not the recruitment of talent.
“Naging challenge din for me. Hindi rin madali because bago kami dumating, may mga kumbaga not good news in terms of culture. Naging challenge ‘yun sa amin. Hindi naging madali talaga ‘yung turnaround ng team,” said Racela.
With Terrence Romeo leading the way, the Tamaraws placed third with an 11-3 record, sweeping the first round but bowing in the Final Four to eventual champion La Salle.
In hindsight, Racela said FEU’s performance in his first year wasn’t surprising at all since the Tamaraws already had the pieces in the program as compared to his first foray in college basketball with San Beda.
“Magkaiba ‘yung sitwasyson ng San Beda nung pumasok ako sa FEU. Doon sa San Beda, they didn’t really have a good program because bago ako pumasok, lahat ng players nila sa high school, naglilipatan ng ibang school. That is something that we tried to fix kaya alam namin na hindi right away makakaperform ‘yung programa. Back then, we had a three-year program, our promise then was to be performing on the third year. And true enough, dun sa programa na ‘yun, sa pangatlong taon, nag-champion ang San Beda but unfortunately, I wasn’t part of the program,” said Racela.
“FEU is totally different. Bago kami pumasok, nakita namin na maganda na ‘yung programa nila in terms of player recruitment. Historically, they are performing well and every year na pumapasok sila sa Final Four. Sabi namin, siguro this program, konting pag-aayos na lang dahil meron namang talent doon. Kaya nung pagpasok namin, it wasn’t really a surprise na nakapag-perform agad ang FEU,” said Racela.
On the second year of the program, FEU made it to the finals, beating La Salle in the Final Four only to lose to a hungrier National University, which ended a title drought that dated back to 1954. But that even became the tonic that the Tamaraws needed.
After ending up as the second seed in the Final Four following an impressive 11-3 record, the Tamaraws sent Ateneo packing following a buzzer-beating putback by Belo off a Tolomia miss, 76-74, to arrange a title showdown with Kevin Ferrer and University of Santo Tomas.
The Tamaraws took the series opener against the top seed Tigers with Pogoy scoring 15 points in their 75-64 Game One victory. After Ferrer lit up for 29 in Santo Tomas’ 62-56 victory over FEU, the Tamaraws regrouped to claim the title in the rubber match.
Belo had 23 points and eight rebounds in Game Three to help FEU claim a 67-62 win, with the FEU star also capturing the Finals MVP behind more than 23,000 fans at the Mall of Asia Arena.
It didn’t take long for those FEU players to make it to the PBA with Belo and Tolomia selected in the 2016 special draft. The FEU presence from that championship team was still being felt in 2019 when Comboy and Eboña were drafted last year.
“I think that’s the reality of life especially sa basketball na kapag nagkaroon ka ng championship, it gives you a bigger chance of making it to the pros. ‘Yun nga ang nangyari,” said Racela.