There’s a saying that says what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Considering everything that the Energen Pilipinas youth team bound for the FIBA Asia Under-18 Championships in Ulan Bator, Mongolia have gone through in the past few months, they should be plenty strong, in heart and in spirit at least.
“Sandali pa lang na-form yung team, pero ang dami na naming pinagdaanan,” said Energen coach Olsen Racela, who alongside all but two members of the team set out for the Mongolian capital Tuesday.
“Pero yun nga eh, makakatulong naman yun dito sa campaign sa FIBA Asia. Simula nung umpisa, the problem with the budget, parang feeling ko lahat yun kailangan naming pagdaanan.”
The team had a late start to their preparations due to the lack of a sponsor to back the program early. Despite that, they swept the field in the SEABA Under-18 Championships in Singapore in late June, successfully defending the title won by the Nokia Pilipinas youth team two years ago. Last year’s sponsor, TAO Corporation, came in to support the program again days before the SEABA.
Last week, while preparing for their FIBA Asia stint, they felt the fury of the Habagat rains as they were left stranded overnight at the SGS Gym in Araneta Avenue due to heavy flooding. Rescue boats were dispatched the next day to bring the players to safety.
And even though they were able to get the support of the UAAP and NCAA this year, two of their players — point guards Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani — were forced to stay behind and are set to follow on Thursday, one day before the tournament begins.
“(We are) very optimistic sa chances namin sa FIBA Asia because of what the team went through,” said Racela.
The Under-18 team expects to face much stiffer competition in this year’s FIBA Asia compared to last year’s Under-16 championships, where they finished a solid fourth place in the tournament held in Nha Trang, Vietnam. From last year’s champion team China, only two members made the Under-18 squad for the upcoming tilt.
But the team is also stronger, not to mention bigger, than last year’s Energen squad.
“In every position, meron kaming player unlike last year na gipit kami sa bigs,” said Racela. “Ngayon, meron in every position, although meron pa ring players na pwede sana kunin, na hindi pinayagan.”
“Considering all those things that happened, this is a good team.”
But before they can even get a shot at teams like China, Racela knows they’ll have their hands full of the three Group D teams including Iran, which is reportedly pouring a lot of resources into their youth program. Energen Pilipinas is set to open its campaign against Saudi Arabia on Friday in a game that Racela knows is extremely important.
“Feeling ko if there’s one game we are expected to win, Saudi yun. If you win that qualified ka na agad eh. Kasi ang mag-ka-qualify tatlo eh,” said Racela. “Very crucial ang first game.”
They then face Kazakhstan on Saturday before closing the preliminary round against Iran on Sunday. The top three teams move on to the second round where they will face the three qualifiers of Group C, which is composed of Chinese Taipei, Bahrain, Indonesia and Mongolia.
The top four teams from their second round group move onto the quarterfinals.
“Main problem namin is familiarity sa isa’t isa, yun yung nakuha namin last year sa 16-and-under because nine months kami magkakasama,” said Racela. “That summer, talagang doon kami nag-focus, nakapag-practice kami everyday. Itong grupo na ito, wala talaga. Late na talaga kami nag-start.”
“Kaya umaasa ako sa mga holdovers sa 16-and-under.”
There are only four holdovers from last year’s FIBA Asia Under-16 team — Cani, big man Jay Javelosa and team captains J-Jay Alejandro and Prince Rivero.
Rey Nambatac, Mark Olayon, Mario Bonleon, Kent Lao and Kyle Suarez were all part of the SEABA title campaign last June, and they also get a boost with new members Pingoy, Kris Porter and the returning G-Boy Babilonia.
Pingoy, the UAAP juniors Most Valuable Player, averaged 18.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 5.2 steals last season for the FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws. Babilonia, who was part of the team that competed in the SEABA Under-16 tilt last year, and Porter are big men who are members of the Ateneo Blue Eagles seniors team.
Racela had hoped to find some taller players to match up with the other Asian teams, some of which have seven-footers even on the 16-and-under level, but admitted that he and his coaching staff could not find players with size to match up with the bigger teams.
The national youth team will instead rely on speed and quickness against their taller counterparts, much like Racela’s Under-16 team did in a strong campaign last year before losing to South Korea in the semifinals and Japan in the third place game.
“Yun pa rin ang strength natin, speed pa rin. And hopefully, hanggang dulo magamit natin,” said the coach. “Yung schedule kasi natin, medyo mahirap. Six straight games.”
“Six games in six days. Sana nandoon pa rin yung condition nila, six straight games na puro takbuhan.”
He also hopes that they can rely on some smarts in the tourney. The youth team received a little help from former SMART-Gilas coach Rajko Toroman, whom Racela asked to drop by one practice session to help with plays. Racela said that if the running game slows, he wants to run some of Toroman’s sets from SMART-Gilas.
“He says they’re smart players. May mga plays siya na pinakita na medyo mahirap intindihin pero nakuha agad nung players,” said Racela.
“He liked what he saw.”
Racela said that Toroman is not involved with the youth program, though, and merely dropped by in an informal capacity.
Despite much tougher opponents this year, Racela remains hopeful that the team will be among the three teams from Asia to qualify for the FIBA Under-19 World Championships to be held in Czech Republic next year.
“Of course, (the goal is) to get a medal. What medal it is is up to the boys,” he said. “Sana we get the breaks this time.”
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