Dark Horse, No More: Inside LPU Pirates’ arsenal for NCAA Season 94

The term “dark horse” is a double-edged sword. There’s a level of unpredictability to it: A dark horse can surge, but it can also waver. It can barge in because it was not expected to be there in the first place. Discussions about a dark horse’s power exist in relation to the establishment—put simply, its ability to shake things up for the expected victors.

The LPU Pirates were hailed as last year’s dark horse, fitting challengers to the dynastic San Beda Red Lions. Fans were thrilled when they made their 18-0 sweep of the elimination round, but when the Red Lions swept them in the Finals, it didn’t feel like a surprise.

This year is a different story. The dark horse title has passed to comeback kids CSB Blazers. The wild cards are the Perpetual Altas and Mapua Cardinals. LPU is no longer a dark horse counterpart to San Beda, but equals: they are the top dogs now.

Weight loss and mental gains

The Pirates enter NCAA Season 94 after a busy preseason, where they emerged champions of both PCCL and the PBA D-League. Coach Topex Robinson’s lead assistant Jeff Perlas says they entered the FilOil Cup but treated that as their pre-season.

“Parang kailan lang yung Season 93, no? Pero ang daming nangyari sa off-season. Kaya sa FilOil, ‘yun na ‘yung pinaka-off season namin para makapag-pahinga ‘yung mga maglalaro sa NCAA,” says Perlas. “Mostly Team B pinaglaro namin doon, minsan eight players lang. For experience lang talaga. Kasi kung ilaro pa namin doon, baka masunog at wala nang malabas sa NCAA.”

Instead, the LPU Pirates’ core focused on their conditioning.

CJay Perez and captain MJ Ayaay were sent to the United States—a first for LPU—to train with Jon “Superhandles” Hildebrandt, who SLAM Magazine has written about as “one of the best ball-handlers in the world.” Perez and Ayaay were tasked with learning as much as they can and bringing it home to their teammates.

At the team’s daily practice in Mandaluyong, strength and conditioning coach John Lopez says he hasn’t changed much from last year’s routine. “Wala naman kaming binago, dinagdagan lang intensity,” he says. “Pero overall, mas kundisyon sila this year. Lalo na si Toci, ang laki ng pinayat.”

Toci Tansingco used to weigh over 225 pounds, but after cutting out pork and other fatty dishes, has whittled down his 6’1” frame to 195 pounds.

Tansingco is now faster, more confident, and had a good showing in the preseason, earning him praise from LPU’s coaches, who say he adds positive energy to the team. Several other players are also making an effort to cut down—Spencer Pretta, for example, is off desserts and sweets—and if you visit the LPU dorm, you might catch one of them cooking brown rice!

Twins Jaycee and Jayvee Marcelino were already among the fittest last year, but coaches say their main improvement was mental. “They’re better in terms of dealing with their mistakes. Last year, they tended to feel down and distracted after committing mistakes,” says Manalo. “Now, they are able to refocus right away.”

And as for Perez, one of the top PBA Draft prospects this year, the coaches could ask for nothing more. “Ready na ready,” grins Lopez.

Learning from the two sweeps

LPU is still the only NCAA team that involves sports psychology in their program. Sports psychology consultant Marcus Jarwin Manalo says both their 18-0 run and getting swept in the finals has improved the team’s cohesion and composure coming into Season 94.

“Overall, I think [being swept in the finals] had a positive impact. That helped the team to stay grounded, realize that there are a lot of things to improve on, work harder, and give more value to the opportunities presented to us,” says Manalo, who also works with national athletes and teaches at the University of the Philippines.

“We saw that during the PBA D-League stint, where the team faced a lot of adversity,” he continues. “Like a twice-to-win disadvantage in the quarterfinals, facing a higher seed in the semifinals, losing Game 1 of the finals, being down 14 points late in the 3rd quarter of do-or-die Game 3, but still found a way to win.”

The LPU Pirates during a sport imagery session.

“In terms of special requests, the coaches want to avoid complacency. The historic 18-0 run last year and the preseason championships early this year can be a trap. The human tendency is to think that you have an easier path. Sometimes you just want a shortcut and skip the process. So we really give constant reminders, focus more on the small goals, and incorporate that in our mindfulness sessions,” says Manalo.

“The principles that we talk about now are pretty much the same as last year. But I would say we focus more on mindfulness this season,” he says. “The idea is to always play in the present moment. Instead of blocking negative thoughts and emotions, like frustration after a mistake or bad call from the referee or from an opponent’s 10-0 run or from lack of playing time, what we want is to just recognize how it feels to be frustrated, accept that it’s okay to be frustrated, then have a better perspective of what is the best thing to do in that particular moment. I think it’s going to help us improve our focus, composure, and ability to adapt to different situations.”

So expect more of Robinson leading pre-game meditation sessions and quoting passages from his ever-growing book collection while the Pirates listen to ocean sounds. Last year, I was surprised to find LPU has the best-smelling dugout thanks to assistant coach Rommel Adducul’s vanilla scented candles—a small touch they felt added a homey vibe to the dugout and helped put the boys in a more calm state before a game.

At a recent practice, the coaches laughed as they showed off their new candle for the new season: Strawberry lemonade.

‘Process over product’

In a recent sports psychology session, the team drew a map on a whiteboard showing their challenges and their desired path. Nowhere was the word “championship” or “winning” to be seen.

“It’s process over product,” explains Manalo. “We’re not saying that winning is not important or that we don’t want to win. Of course it is important and of course we want to win. But what we want to emphasize more is the process. I don’t think that it will make us less hungry because part of the process is giving our best focus and best effort on every play,” Manalo says. “We believe that if we take care of the process, winning will take care of itself.”

Though no longer dark horses, this philosophy places them once more as counterpoints to the Red Lions’ emphasis on “the winning tradition.” Which philosophy will win out in the end? That remains to be seen.

Additional photos courtesy: Marcus Jarwin Manalo