2017 Year in Review: The long and arduous journey of the Ateneo Blue Eagles

December 22, 2017

by: Yoyo Sarmenta

The Ateneo Blue Eagles celebrate their UAAP Season 80 crown. (Photo by Winston Baltasar)
The Ateneo Blue Eagles celebrate their UAAP Season 80 crown. (Photo by Winston Baltasar)

 

(Editor’s note: the Sports5.ph crew looks back at the top sports stories of the past 12 months in our 2017 Year in review series.)

It was the morning of December 8, 2016 and Thirdy Ravena was about to go through his usual routine. He ate breakfast, got a couple of shots up, went to school, and attended his classes. After school hours, he made his way over to the Moro Lorenzo Gym in Ateneo to have practice with the Blue Eagles.

But on that particular day, there was something different. On that fateful day, there was no practice. There were no plays to go over and no game plans to review. The season was officially over as the De La Salle Green Archers were crowned UAAP champions of Season 79 the night before. His everyday grind in the past 11 months had come to a complete stop.

“Parang… weird,” Thirdy remembered the morning after the finals loss. “As in weird na wala akong gagawin, walang practice, walang akong ip-prepare. Parang… what now?”

Now, it would be too easy to fast-forward everything. It wouldn’t be too difficult to close our eyes, push the next button and skip towards the next season.

We all know what happened the following year, of course. Ateneo came into Season 80, well-prepared and hungrier than ever. They held the league for ransom, winning games left and right, nearly sweeping the entire elimination round. After a close battle against the FEU Tamaraws in the semis, they renewed their rivalry with La Salle yet again in the finals.

The Blue Eagles then endured an epic three-game series and came away with their ninth title in school history. As for Ravena, he earned the finals MVP honors for his outstanding play in the title run. It was a beautiful and inspiring story about the underdog who fell short a year ago, but came back to win it all.

It would be indeed too easy to simply fast-forward into 2017 and congratulate Ravena and the Eagles for their stirring run towards the UAAP championship. But their journey – the morning after the loss back in 2016 and all the way till the buzzer sounded last December 3, 2017 after defeating La Salle in Game 3 – is a long and arduous one. It was a year of waiting, learning, maturing, growing, and trusting. As a team, Ateneo needed to lick their wounds and figure out a way to topple the mighty Green Archers.

“We worked hard. I can’t think of anything else right now, you know,” head coach Tab Baldwin expressed when Ateneo won the championship. “They say in moments like this, you think about the most important things—and I just think about how hard we’ve worked.”

“Hard work” may seem overused and cliché, but those words hold true for the Blue Eagles nonetheless. Part of that hard work was going to a grueling training camp in Baler over the summer. In Baldwin’s words, he “crucified” his team and put them through “the worst things you can imagine” in that weeklong grind.

From January to May, their workout regimen focused mostly on weight training to counter La Salle’s overwhelming strength.

During the FilOil Flying V Preseason tournament over the summer, they worked on their individual skills first and foremost before going into team schemes and plays. They didn’t come out as champions of the preseason, but they never doubted their potential.

Prior to Season 80, even Baldwin had to admit that he needed to change as well. “Last year was a learning curve for me probably more than anybody else in the organization,” he said last September before the season kicked off.

After coaching professionals at the international level, the 59-year-old mentor had to make his methods applicable to college kids. Fortunately, the response of the Eagles was that of trust and acknowledgement. Everything that Baldwin instructed, they took to heart.

“They just responded every step of the way and when we ran into real adversity, none bigger than that tremendous La Salle basketball team, they found a way. And a lot of it is their heart, soul and courage,” Baldwin said proudly.

Ateneo’s road to the UAAP title was about seizing opportunities and redemption, stemming from that hard work.

It was about second chances. For instance, there was Chibueze Ikeh who had been on the tail end of harsh criticism for his poor play throughout his stay in Ateneo. The Blue Eagles stuck with him, and the big man repaid them in full this season by transforming into a reliable threat in the post.

There was trust. Rookie Gian Mamuyac is a scrawny player out of the school’s Team B. As young as he was, he saw huge minutes against the Archers as the team needed a defender that can match anyone’s speed and length.

Leaders also emerged in the form of Mike Nieto and Vince Tolentino. The graduating Tolentino was first hesitant to call out teammates, but he led by example. Nieto took on the reins as the vocal leader in the locker room despite being only on his third year with the team.

And who can forget about the improbable rise to stardom by Isaac Go? He faltered in the second round against La Salle when he missed a gimme underneath the rim. But again, his coaches and teammates stuck with him. They still wanted Go to be involved in the clutch moments and the big man delivered multiple times in the final four and in the finals, none bigger than his three-pointer in Game 3 that eventually led Ateneo to the title.

“These boys worked a long time, you know, to get here. I told them, ‘We didn’t reach a peak, we reached a plateau, because there has to be room for the whole team,’” Baldwin shared. “We didn’t do it as individuals, we did it as a team. So nobody stands at the peak alone. They stand there as a team, and they’re standing proud of what they’ve accomplished and they’re standing proud as Ateneans.”

As for Thirdy Ravena, his story also came into full circle. Two years ago, he wasn’t even eligible to play due to academic reasons. That was a soul-crushing, humbling moment for the young forward, but he persevered. And after the heartbreaking defeat last season, he pushed himself even further and the result was a championship.

When Ravena won the finals MVP, all he could think about was his teammates. “For me, the team deserves that award. They all deserve the championship. I’m just doing my job. I’m not doing anything special,” he said, moments after Game 3. “Even those players you don’t really see on the court. They’re with us in practice every single today. They’ve been with us in the journey, the student managers, even the ball boys. We all exerted the same effort.”

Again, it would be easy to fast-forward everything. Two to three years from now, the core of the Season 80 championship run will be graduating. Can Ateneo repeat? Can Baldwin and his hardworking Eagles win a couple more titles?

But, we’re getting too ahead of ourselves. If there’s anything we learned from the Ateneo Blue Eagles, it’s the journey. The road to victory is as important, or even more important than the actual reward. From despair, grief, and heartache, comes redemption and growth – but only for those who work hard enough for it.

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