RALPH Rivera has found his niche in coaching, long after a promising career that never really took off - no thanks to injuries.
Rivera, 40, is now considered one of the top college coaches in the country outside of the UAAP and NCAA, having made a significant mark in the few years that he has been in charge of Our Lady of Fatima University's basketball program.
Under Rivera’s watch, the Phoenix have made it to the finals of this year’s National Athletic Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities (Naascu), taking powerhouse St. Clare College to the distance in their finals showdown.
His success in the coaching ranks comes years after Rivera was forced to retire early by of an assortment of injuries.
Rivera was a former member of the Philippine youth team in the nineties - and a star in a San Beda Red Lions side that also Rensy Bajar, Dino Manuel, and Norman Gonzales.
Unfortunately, their San Beda teams would finish runner-ups to the dominant San Sebastian squad then led by Rommel Adducul during their time.
“Grand slam kami sa second place,” Rivera recalled.
After the NCAA, Rivera played in the Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) with the Pangasinan Presidents and the Batangas Blades.
Players are considered unlucky if they suffer an ACL or Achilles tendon injury; Rivera had to endure two torn ACLs and two Achilles tendon injuries.
The setbacks, however, have opened other opportunities for him in and out of the basketball court in the form of coaching career and other business ventures.
He began coaching the OLFU juniors basketball team in 2010, before being elevated to the seniors ranks in 2013.
OLFU’s basketball program has been making strides ever since, with UAAP and NCAA teams taking notice of the players the school has produced.
Among the players that have passed through OLFU are Teytey Teodoro of Jose Rizal University, Lervin Flores of Arellano, Ian Alban of Lyceum, and Dan Alberto of University of the East.
“Para na rin kaming nag-form ng NCAA team,” said Rivera, who has mixed feelings about former players being recruited by UAAP and NCAA chools.
“Positive on our side na nakaka-produce kami ng medyo Class A na collegiate players pero on the bad side, nahihirapan kaming mag-tuloy ng programa namin. Hindi namin ma-sustain ‘yung line-up namin because of the recruitment ng UAAP and NCAA,” he added.
“Pero happy kami na successful sila sa ibang teams,” said Rivera, who is also the athletic director of the school.
Rivera bared that OLFU is now stepping up efforts to keep top talent by fielding teams in commercial leagues to help the players gain exposure. Recently, the OLFU Phoenix joined the PCBL where they formed the core of Supremo Lex.
“Na-eexpose na rin sila so hopefully, hindi na nila option ‘yung lumipat. One step going to the pros na rin ‘yung D-League at PCBL,” said Rivera.
The strategy appears to be working as the Phoenix have made it to the finals of the Naascu where they pushed St. Clare to the limit before falling short in Game Three.
“Somehow nagulat kami na nasa finals na kami. Third and fourth lang kami nung hinawakan namin. First time namin sa finals,” said Rivera.
On hindsight, Rivera considers the injuries that plagued his playing career as a blessing in disguise.
“Siguro, baka wala pa ako sa coaching ngayon,” said Rivera. “Blessing in disguise rin. Tinitignan ko ‘yung bright side. Mas maganda pa.”