Atin Din ‘To: A varsity team’s quest for recognition within their own university

After thirty long years, the UP Fighting Maroons finally reclaimed its rightful seat among the elites of college basketball. It took a collective effort from the players, the coaches, the administration and the alumni to achieve this level of success. Thanks to their recent UAAP finals appearance, the team is widely celebrated within the UP community.

Eighty kilometers south of Diliman, another basketball team from UP was trying to carve its own path to success. As fate would have it, they would have the chance to do so with a face-off against the second-best team from the UAAP.

It’s been a decade since Copeland Gymnasium first opened its doors to UP Los Baños. For years, the hardwood court was the mecca of the university’s basketball community. The gymnasium, with its dilapidated floor and damaged hoops, already hosted hundreds, maybe thousands of games, be it local and regional leagues, university intramurals, inter-organizational and inter-class tournaments, or just your typical weeknight pick up games. In the court’s young history though, no basketball game gained more attention than the one which transpired in the morning of March 25th.

For the first time, the gymnasium was filled with hundreds of spectators, which was an unlikely sight to see even for the most high stakes games that happened there. The court’s sidelines and even the corridors of Wing A’s second and third floors were crowded with UPLB students, faculty members and staff. Even the university officials, who rarely had spare time outside of their jobs, came out to watch the highly anticipated event.

Ironically, the game that turned Copeland Gymnasium into Rucker Park wasn’t even sanctioned. It didn’t bear the heartbreak of the 2014 championship game of the UPLB women’s basketball team in a regional league, which ended in a loss. It wasn’t even an elimination match between rival student organizations which could often lead to heated arguments, sometimes to the point of short-lived scuffles.

Instead, a sea of people stood for hours to witness an exhibition match between two teams from different UP campuses. However, this was no simple scrimmage between practicing squads, and the home team knew it. “They’re probably the best team we’ve battled on the court so far,” uttered UPLB’s captain Tiel Villar.

Their opponents? The UP Fighting Maroons.

UPLB was going up against a team that, just a few months ago, gave the University of the Philippines its first UAAP finals appearance since 1986. More than just being rockstars within the UP community –Los Baños included– the team from Diliman was arguably the second-best collegiate team in the country. They’re as elite as it could get. Even the players themselves admitted that they were starstruck as they matched up against their idols.

Given the magnitude of popularity their opponents had, it was only natural to expect the hometown boys to crumble. It wouldn’t even be surprising if the game turned into one big celebrity meet-and-greet for them. After all, not everyone could have the chance to share the basketball court with your idols, with people you look up to.

However, the home team knew the enormity of the opportunity that was presented to them. For Diliman, the game might be nothing more than an exhibition contest, a means of expressing their gratitude to the fans who supported them in Season 81. But for the boys of Los Baños, this contest was their chance to finally show to the whole community that they are capable of achieving more.

“Malaking bagay na naka-attract ng crowd yung pagdating ng UP Diliman. This game became an avenue for us to show na may skills din kami, may capabilities din kami,” Tiel exclaimed.

For the longest time, student athletes of UP Los Baños did not receive the same treatment as their counterparts in Diliman. Prior to the implementation of the law that gave free tuition on all state universities and colleges, UPLB student athletes did not receive any scholarships from the university. “Dati talaga, uniform lang at exemption sa PE subjects ang nakukuha namin, then yung mga bola luma na rin,” said Ace Velez, a mainstay in the team since 2015. “So far, improving na yung support kasi may allowance na. Pero compared to UP Diliman, malayo pa rin,” he added.

Moreover, these players needed to endure nighttime training after grueling daytime academics without the guarantee that they would play in any competitions for the school year. “You train day in, day out tapos walang liga,” Tiel said. In 2017, UPLB skipped the Southern Tagalog Regional Association of State Universities and Colleges (STRASUC) Olympics, which is the regional tournament for the national SCUAA Olympics.

With little benefits to offer, UPLB men’s basketball team, along with all the other varsity teams, banked on intangible concepts when it came to building their rosters. Passion. Love for the game. The thrill and the honor of representing the university in a competition. It may sound noble, but it wasn’t enough to assemble the best team possible.

“With regards sa varsity dito sa UPLB, di talaga siya magawang priority,” said Miggy Rosanes, a fourth-year student and co-captain of the UPLB men’s basketball team for three years now. “Hirap talaga kaming makakuha ng players. Merong mga tao na relax lang sa training o kaya sa games lang pumupunta kasi ang tingin nila di naman sapat yung nakukuhang benefits. Kami na nagpapakapagod, kami pa rin bahala sa gastos namin,” he added.

It wasn’t every day that the team would find students who were willing to give up their free time for nights of endless drills. In a university with over 10,000 students, someone like Justin Germita was a rarity. Ever since joining the varsity as a freshman, Justin went through the exhausting routine of academics and basketball, all for the love of the game. “Thankful kami kapag may ibinibigay ang university. Pero kapag wala, okay lang din kasi ginagawa ko naman ‘to para sa basketball talaga,” he said.

Often times, UPLB varsity teams missed out on players who could improve the talent pool. Such is the case with Carlos Sales. “Freshman pa lang, nire-recruit na ako. Nag-train ako for awhile, pero noong nalaman ko na hindi funded, hindi ko na tinuloy kasi feeling ko masasakripisyo ‘yung pag-aaral ko sa wala,” Carlos said. He was a fixture on inter-organizational tournaments within UPLB, but he only decided to fully commit to the varsity on his graduating year. “Iba pa rin pala kapag dala ‘yung pangalan ng university,” he added.

As a result, the team struggled to win titles for UPLB in recent years. “In STRASUC, we were winless for four years before last season. Thankfully last year, we were able to win a couple of games kaya nakaabot kami ng quarterfinals, pero hanggang doon lang. Sa LACUAA (Laguna Colleges and Universities Athletics Association) naman po, we registered one win against six losses. It goes to show lang po that we have really much to improve,” Tiel added.

While it’s true that this team wasn’t among the successful programs in UPLB, it’s admirable how they worked hard with limited resources at their disposal. They found ways to keep the team and their love for basketball alive. “These guys I’m with, we endured yung situation, we kept on training para kapag may liga na ulit, tuloy lang yung pag-angat ng skill level namin as a team. Di kami nag-give up,” Tiel proudly exclaimed.

All these years, they waited for this moment to arrive. This was the chance that this team yearned for—an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the university that they had the honor of representing. “Yung pinaka-goal ko kanina is since pupunta yung UPLB community to see us play, maipakita sana namin kung paano kami maglaro,” Miggy exclaimed after the game.

The goal that Miggy referred to wasn’t to win–he knew it was out of reach. Instead, he wanted the team to play their hearts out, all in an effort to prove that they were actually worth something for the community. In that game, even if it was just an exhibition match, they carried the weight not just of their basketball team, but of the entirety of UPLB’s varsity program that has been longing for extended support from the university.

But basketball isn’t played with heart alone. Winning takes great skills, better coaching, even superior physique. The Fighting Maroons proved just that, as they dominated UPLB throughout the game. The hometown boys were no match against the basketball rockstars. The UAAP finalists were bigger, stronger, and more skilled than them.

Yet, the crew from Los Baños left the court without a hint of shame on their faces. No mouths frowned. No heads bowed down. At the end of the day, playing against a few of the nation’s best collegiate players was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for UPLB. “Magandang exposure sa amin ‘yung game. Kahit malayo talaga ‘yung skill level, inilaban naman namin,” Miggy shared.

The Fighting Maroons clearly enjoyed the game. The crowd cheered for them right from the moment they stepped into the court. Just like how the community supported them in the UAAP Finals, the entire gymnasium showed their love for the team like it was their own.

For Diliman, the scrimmage was a thanksgiving event for the UP community that, albeit miles away from their own, supported them throughout Season 81. But honestly, that might be all it was for them. The game had no bearing on their upcoming season. It was more of a break than a tuneup. After the exhibition match, they were probably back to their usual training routines to gear up for Season 82.

For Los Baños though, this game meant something entirely different. It was their way of knocking on the door, introducing themselves to the university that they carried on the chests of their jerseys for quite some time. “I’m proud of my team. I hope we’ve done enough to make UPLB proud as well,” Tiel exclaimed.

If this was a movie, the exhibition game would be the climax. The story would end with the UPLB men’s basketball team finally getting the support from the community it represented. The hometown boys would find a moral victory beneath the defeat.

This was not a Hollywood flick, though. The fight to gain the support that they seek for is far from over. Now, it’s up to the team to build something from that game. Unlike the UP Fighting Maroons, they won’t ever reach the UAAP Finals, let alone the Final Four. But they don’t need to be like their counterparts from Diliman. Just like how they proved their worth to the university with that game, it’s up to the UPLB men’s basketball team to define and achieve their own success.

Truth be told, their story has just begun.

Photos courtesy of University of the Philippines Los Baños and UPLB Infocus Media Guild