LOSING seven players, including key prospects, with just a few weeks left before the UAAP season opens is surely a huge, disheartening blow to what could have been a promising campaign for an Ateneo squad looking to end four years of championship drought.
But despite the dark cloud looming over them, the undermanned Blue Eagles are moving forward with heads unbowed and spirits unbroken, vowing to scrap their way in every battle together.
Seven players will no longer be part of the Blue Eagles in Season 79 after they failed to make the school’s academic requirements for its student-athletes. One of them, top recruit CJ Perez, has already moved to Lyceum, while a few like Arvin Tolentino, Hubert Cani, and Clint Doliguez are being recruited by other schools.
This has in turn caused some Ateneo fans to fear a repeat of the team’s ‘dark ages’ in the UAAP, an era overshadowed by the Blue Eagles basketball program that has won six titles, including five straight, in the collegiate league at the turn of the century and a consistent championship contender every season.
However, the team’s coaching staff is unfazed, defiant even, seeing the silver lining in their supposedly gloomy situation. The coaches are confident with what they see in their team, a competitive, scrappy unit that will only be fueled further by the opportunity to step up and play with and for each other.
“It’s an opportunity for the other players to step up,” Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga said. “Whether they like it or not, we need them to step up because we want the team to go.”
“Our vision for the team is we want to come up with the team that would fight for every possession, fight for every game. We have no choice. They have no choice,” he added.
This early, the shorthanded Ateneo team is already showing their grit. In its quarterfinal match against Perpetual Help, Adrian Wong led the team in scoring with 13 points, while Chibueze Ikeh put up a near double-double with 12 points and eight rebounds. Seldom-used Anton Asistio was also a key player for the Blue Eagles’ 68-59 win with 12 points.
“So far, the players have been open to the challenge and we want them to face this challenge head on, which is the kind of response that we want from our players,” Arespacochaga said.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the Blue Eagles holdovers are responding well to the coaches’ call, as the one leading the challenge is no stranger to overcoming great odds: their own head coach Tab Baldwin, the same person with a sterling record of leading unheralded but scrappy teams, like Gilas Pilipinas, to unprecedented heights.
“I think we are getting there. We know the vision. We are taking it one step at a time. We want to take strides. Even if it’s one step forward, two steps back, the important thing is that we are moving forward. That’s the mentality that we are taking right now,” said Arespacochaga.