WITH Leo Austria guiding San Miguel Beer to the PBA Philippine Cup finals, his former players at Adamson can’t help but reminisce their best chance of making it all the way to the UAAP men’s basketball championship three years ago.
The Falcons enjoyed one of their best seasons in 2011 under the leadership of Austria when they reached the Final Four holding a twice-to-beat advantage for the first time ever.
Unfortunately, the team failed to hurdle No. 3 seed Far Eastern University in the semifinals and blew its chance of ending more than three decades of futility in the premier college league.
To this day, several key players of that hard-luck team still believed the Falcons could have won the crown had they made it past the Tamaraws.
“Dapat talaga champion kami nun kasi kami lang ang nakatalo sa Ateneo nun. Sobrang nanghihinayang kami,” recalled Alex Nuyles, one of the stars of that Falcons team.
“Kontra pelo kasi kami sa FEU,” admitted Jerick Cañada, one of Austria’s reliable guards at the point. “Kung nakalusot kami sa FEU, hindi mo rin masabi.”
The Falcons had all the reasons to believe they can beat Ateneo at the time especially after the San Marcelino-based squad snapped a 29-game losing streak to the Blue Eagles in the final game of the eliminations with a masterful 62-46 win.
Nuyles backstopped the team that same season, leading the Falcons in scoring and earning a spot in the league’s Mythical selection.
Also part of the team was point guard Lester Alvarez, who ably backed up Cañada, as well as Eric Camson, Rodney Brondial, Cameroonian center Austin Manyara, Jan Colina, and Janus Lozada.
Cañada recalled the team under Austria had the makings of a champion, having played together for so long.
“Malakas ‘yung team na ‘yun kasi kumpleto kami nun. Parang pamilya na rin kami kasi four to five years na kaming magkakasama,” Cañada told Spin.ph.
For his part, Nuyles said some of the players, including him, only made the team through tryouts and were actually not recruited since Adamson had nothing much to offer in the recruiting game.
“’Yung team kasi na ‘yun, nagsama-sama sa mga tryouts pa lang. Walang budget para kumuha ng players kaya sa tryouts kumukuha. Hanggang sa nagsama-sama. Tiniyaga kami ni coach Leo noon,” said Nuyles.
To augment for the Falcons’ meager resources, Nuyles recalled Austria had the team play in invitational tournaments in the provinces where cash prizes were at stake.
“Kahit walang budget, sinasali niya kami sa mga invitational tournaments. Dadalhin kami dun dahil may cash prize. ‘Yung cash prize, ginagamit namin para sa dorm, para magkaroon kami ng washing machine, o kaya TV para magkabuhay ‘yung dorm.”
Nuyles also remembered Austria making an effort to change the culture of the Falcons not only on the court but also in school.
“Gusto namin bumalik ‘yung crowd ng Adamson kasi dati walang nanonood sa amin. Iba kasi ‘yung trato sa amin sa Adamson. Naabutan pa namin na parang ‘bad boys’ ‘yung mga players.
"Gusto ni coach Leo ibahin ‘yung culture na good boys na pumapasok kami. Nabago ‘yung culture dahil kay coach Leo.”
Their experience only strengthened the team's bond, which is why Nuyles, to this day, still has regrets about not playing well during the Final Four round due to a nagging shoulder injury.
After beating the Falcons, the Tamaraws marched to the finals and eventually, lost to defending champion Ateneo, the same team Adamson beat in the final game of the eliminations, which went on to win its fourth straight UAAP crown.
“Hindi lang kami na-isahan, na-dalawahan kami,” said Nuyles, referring to their loss to an FEU team led by Aldrech Ramos, RR Garcia, and Terrence Romeo. “Kasi nung first game namin, na-injured ako. Nagsisi ako na hindi nakapag-laro ng maganda nung second game.”
Four years after that memorable Adamson run, Nuyles and Cañada are grateful to Austria who helped them mold into the pro players that they are today.
“Proud ako na naging under ako sa kanya. Magaling siya mag-jell ng players at alam niya kung paano gamitin ‘yung mga players,” said Cañada.
“Father figure talaga si coach Leo. Hindi namin inexpect na makakarating kami sa PBA,” said Nuyles. “From Day One, hinanda na kami ni coach Leo na maging professional. The way we eat, the way we practice, kung paano ang sistema, sa weights, lahat tinuro niya.
“Naiintindihan na namin ngayon ‘yung ginawa niya kahit saan kami mapunta.”