IT's not just the team logo that is new.
There is a new attitude, a swagger and composure that was absent the previous season; a new coach and a new system that have instilled confidence in a team that once displayed little of it last year.
The result is a new experience: a winning streak, not a string of losses; a place atop the UAAP standings, instead of at its bottom.
Just two games into a very young UAAP season, some may say it may be a bit premature to call the UP Maroons the league’s biggest surprise. What can’t be denied, however, is that two games into UAAP Season 78 and having already doubled its win total from last year, the UAAP’s perennial whipping boys now look set to give more than they once got –in no small part to a Facebook post and a hashtag that set off a chain of events that have culminated in the Maroons’ impressive 2-0 start.
To attribute State U’s remarkable turnaround to a hashtag culled from a concerned UP alumnus’ Facebook post is not hyperbole. The developments leading to the reinvigoration of the Maroons and its oft-frustrated fan base were triggered by a movement of sorts – one inspired by a post by UP alumnus Renan Dalisay, who in early 2014 wrote about the sad plight of UP’s varsity basketball players.
Dalisay's post reminded UP alumni of something we have long known: that the support given by our eternally cash-strapped alma mater to its varsity athletes pales in comparison to that provided by the better-funded athletic programs of other universities in the UAAP.
For the first time, however, the harsh realities of this truth were revealed to an alumni base that didn’t know the full extent of the sacrifices made by UP's varsity athletes in order to play for State U. One line from Renan's post would sum up the struggles of the UP Maroons: “Our team has been playing hungry, literally.”
“They have been going to practice on empty stomachs," according to Dalisay, "playing competitive games without the nourishment of a student-athlete."
His narration of the team's sorry circumstances would be accompanied by an impassioned plea to fellow alumni to help the players and to help bring the literally hungry Maroons closer to what then seemed like an impossible feat: just one win.
Renan ended his call to action with a catchphrase that would become one of the UAAP’s most familiar hashtags: #NoWhereToGoButUP
That was in March 2014. After the post went viral, Renan would get offers of help from other UP alumni. He and other alumni were able to find willing sponsors for the team’s practice meals, generous donors for the Maroons’ other needs, and firm commitments – financial and otherwise – from alumni moved to act.
One of those who answered the call was Azkals manager Dan Palami, a UP alumnus credited for engineering the dramatic turnaround of our men's national football team.
“When your alma mater calls for help, you don’t think too much of the risk,” Palami would say after being named the Maroons' manager in April 2014.
“You think more of it as an obligation to an institution that has been responsible for forming you and making you what you are right now.”
Despite joining the Maroons' management team at the twelfth hour last year, Palami would help change the culture of the team. Professionals like former PBA import Joe Ward were hired to help develop the team’s players, and much-needed equipment was purchased. The team even got a new bus – the product of donations from fellow UP alumni inspired by Dalisay's message. Other alumni adopted the #NoWhereToGoButUP hashtag and created a Facebook page that would become a venue for UP alumni to pitch in and help not just the UP men’s basketball team, but UP’s other varsity teams as well.
More importantly, the hashtag would galvanize a UP community that would echo Dalisay's call for “just one win.” The Maroons would play in front of more supporters, all hoping for an end to a years-long losing streak. The seemingly herculean challenge facing the Maroons would even catch the interest of non-UP alumni, many cheering for the underdog Maroons to clinch that one, elusive victory. The word “bonfire” became part of the UAAP lexicon, and when the Maroons finally broke their 27-game losing streak, the Maroons' sole win that season dominated social media and the news that day.
While happy that the team ended its string of losses last year, UP’s team manager has made it clear that he has bigger ambitions for the Maroons in 2015.
With a full preseason to prepare the Maroons, Palami has set what others would think is a lofty goal for a team just starting to turn things around: a spot in the UAAP Final Four. But with the help of other alumni and members of the UP administration, Palami has spearheaded efforts to help the team achieve this ambitious, but realizable goal. He stepped up player recruitment and brought in a new coaching staff, led by Rensy Bajar. Even the team’s logo underwent a transformation; a change as radical, it seems, as the transformation of the team that beat perennial tournament favorite La Salle on Wednesday.
“It’s a collective effort, and the whole UP community deserves to be commended for where we are right now,” said Palami.
“While we were happy last year to get that one win last season, it was important for us to not lose sight of our ultimate goal, which is to build a competitive team. That, I feel, will help elevate #NoWhereToGoButUp from a hashtag and rallying call to a new mindset, a culture of winning.”
Two games into the season, it appears that the Maroons are almost – if not already – there.