It was the fourth of February, year 2017. The Adamson Baby Falcons found themselves drenched tears after a win versus title contenders NU Bullpups. This wasn’t tears of joy, you could sense that with how quickly the tears just burst out of their eyes as they sang their hymn. There was sadness, but it wasn’t just that. At the very core, the Baby Falcons felt anger, with the need to cry out for justice after everything that had just happened a few weeks back.
The Adamson Baby Falcons were supposed to be championship contenders during Season 79, led by Coach Goldwin Monteverde and a group of battle tested veterans including MVP favorite, Encho Serrano, Jojo Antiporda, Jason Celis and EJ Agbong. Take note of that term: battle-tested. In most cases, in order to win a championship, or at the very least remain relevant during the course of a High School basketball season, you need some players who are not just talented, but also ripe for competition. Coach Goldwin had been handling this group of boys ever since Season 77, and the culmination of his nurturing was supposed to happen two seasons after. It was going well for the most part, up until Adamson was met with controversy as the regular season was about to close. Things were only about to get worse for the Baby Falcons program.
On April 2017, Coach Goldwin Monteverde resigned from his post as head coach of the Baby Falcons. I mentioned in a piece reacting to the move, “It isn’t that far-fetched to say that Coach Goldwin was THE program of Adamson. How things were operated, the system, and the culture which surrounded that team. If it weren’t for him, the Baby Falcons wouldn’t be the contenders that they were.” But, in the blink of an eye, all of those things were gone. It wasn’t just Coach Goldwin who was leaving as well. Serrano, Antiporda, Celis, Agbong, and even up-and-coming studs such as Carl Tamayo and Gerry Abadiano were set to leave Adamson as well. This was an absolute death blow for the Baby Falcons.
Adamson was back to zero, with former Soaring Falcons coach Mike Fermin being named as head coach. Changing head coaches is nothing shocking in High School basketball. It’s happened, from Ateneo moving on from Jamike Jarin to Joe Silva, or San Beda moving from Ato Badolato to JB Sison. Those two programs remained as contenders. They key difference, however, is in that word: Program. The Blue Eaglets and the Red Cubs not only had the personnel, but also the culture. The Baby Falcons had neither of those things. Their head coach didn’t just have to look for new players to treat as main weapons, but he also had to establish an identity for the Baby Falcons that was sorely lacking one. He had to start somewhere, so why not start with the little pieces that he had?
Joem happened to be one of those little pieces that were left at Coach Mike Fermin’s disposal. Just like his old teammates, he was in tears during their final game of Season 79. When Coach Goldwin announced his resignation, he already knew else that meant. “At first talaga po, malungkot po ako at nasa isip ko na po talaga na magkakahiwa-hiwalay na,” shared Joem. Even as he heard the news when he was in the province, he was aware of what was to come. The Adamson Baby Falcons program was in shambles, forced to start all over again. Getting back to contention the next season was close to impossible. Coach Mike Fermin clearly had quite the mountain to climb, but willing to help him out was Joem.
It’s important to note as well: Joem could have left Adamson as well. After all, he was one of Coach Goldwin’s recruits, so going to Chiang Kai Shek along with Antiporda, Celis and Agbong made sense. But Sabandal chose to stick it out. Consider that a testament to his character. He wasn’t fazed by the challenge he and Coach Mike were set to face, embracing this as early as the preseason. That in itself, was already a great step forward for the Adamson program. A head coach who had some semblance of direction. A player who was willing to embrace the role as captain for the team. Slowly but surely, results started to come.
It started in the PCABL, where Adamson was facing the likes of the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, NU Bullpups, FEU Baby Tamaraws and the Chiang Kai Shek Blue Dragons. Very little noise was heard regarding Adamson in this tournament, save for the time Adrian Manlapaz’s dunk on Kai Sotto briefly went viral on the internet. But the Soaring Falcons, against all odds, were actually doing quite well.
That dunk was the spark of the Adamson rebuild. The Baby Falcons beat the Blue Eaglets in that game and the program has been steady ever since. It’s easy to throw the “It’s just the pre-season!” argument, but wins like are huge for a team looking for confidence. At the forefront of that rise was Joem.
In that very same tournament, Joem was part of the Mythical Five alongside the likes of Kai and SJ Belangel. This was definitely a big deal, not just for him, but also the Adamson program. “Nung nag Mythical Five ako nung PCABL with guys like Kai Sotto and SJ Belangel, doon po talaga tumaas kumpiyansa ko,” shared Joem.
The award was a testament not just to Joem’s hard work and determination, but even Coach Mike Fermin’s ability as a head coach. This was also a chance at retribution for Coach Mike. Remember: he was booted as head coach of the Soaring Falcons after Coach Franz Pumaren took over. This was his shot at proving himself as someone who can not only be good with the Xs and Os, but someone who can develop as well.
Developing High School players isn’t just a matter of teaching them skills. Anybody can do that. The challenge is getting to connect with them on a personal level. A relationship has to be born, with trust and confidence in one another being the pillars of this. But in order to even reach this bond, as individuals, you need to be whole as well. Coach Mike was thankfully ready for the task, as evidenced by how Joem blossomed as early as the preseason.
“He treated us like his sons. Sa everyday na pagtetrain namin, parang nafefeel namin na hindi kami yung tipong baguhan talaga,” mentioned Joem. For someone who was handling a program that was starting over again, you couldn’t have blamed Coach Mike Fermin if he treated his players as if they were only learning the nuances of the game now. This was a far cry from how he was coaching college players. These were High School players who not only had tons of developing to do, but also had to carry a program that dropped all the way from the top to the bottom. That didn’t matter for Coach Mike.
He approached these players with the confidence of a father watching his two-year old son try to dunk a ball into a mini hoop. His eyes gleamed as if to say, “Kaya mo yan. Sus! Ikaw pa ba.” Instilling confidence can be a risk because what you could get is no return. But it didn’t matter, as Coach Mike continued to shower his players with love during the entire course of the preseason. This program had nothing when Coach Goldwin left, so Coach Mike started rebuilding with trust and confidence.
Coach Mike did his part. It was time for Joem and the rest of the team to do theirs.
The Baby Falcons started of their season by getting blown out versus the Ateneo Blue Eaglets. A lot of people were impressed with Ateneo’s win, but there were also those who scoffed and said, “Adamson lang naman yan eh.” The very same program that was left behind after a wave of controversies surrounded them. The team that had to start over again in an instant. They endured one entire offseason of being treated as JUST Adamson, so what was one game right?
They continued to fight even after that game, ending right in the thick of the Final Four race after the first round. What was most impressive was how they pushed title contenders such as the NU Bullpups and the FEU Baby Tamaraws to the limit. Coach Mike Fermin laid the seeds during the offseason, and his players were paying him back as a result. Joem was a big part of the success they were attaining.
“As senior on this team po, minomotivate and tinutulungan ko lang yung mga rookies namin na mag work harder sa practices namin,” explained Joem. “Sabi nga din po nila coach sa amin, sino ba kami diba? Yan lang nilalagay namin sa isip namin kaya lumalaban po kami.”
What’s even more impressive with this group of players was how it was never meant to be about elevating themselves as individuals. They’ve embraced a “We not Me” mentality. It’s not about the name on the back, it’s about the one that’s in front. Adamson. “Basta sa amin lang po maiangat ulit yung Adamson at naging motivation lang namin yung mga negative comments about samin kumbaga yung mga doubters namin na hindi namin kaya.”
It’s the seventh of February year 2018, more than a year ever since the Baby Falcons went up against the NU Bullpups. This time around, the Baby Falcons lost, which forced them into a do or die situation for a Final Four slot. Despite the loss, there were no tears shed. Cries for justice were nowhere to be found. There were long faces, understandably so. But what these players had at the very core were trust and confidence that they could carry on to the next game. It’s no surprise then there was very little drama in the Baby Falcons locker room after the game.
“Pinag-usapan lang yung mga mali namin, and then after that we will look forward towards our game against Zobel,” shared Sabandal about what happened in the locker room for Adamson after the loss. “Our Focus is to win and bounce back in our last game this elimination round.” Their eyes aren’t immediately set on the Final Four. It’s on the DLSZ Junior Archers, and winning against them in the elimination round.
That’s the thing with moving on, from losing something as big as what Adamson lost. It’s the little things that count the most, and Coach Mike started this program by instilling trust and confidence within the team. It’s not going to be easy to move on from such loss. It’s the start which is always the hardest. But it does get better. You just have to give it time, by holding on to your core values. The Baby Falcons did just that, and they may very well make it to the Final Four when all is said and done.
Looking back at everything that had happened over the past year, Joem couldn’t help but let out a smile. “Oo nga idol eh, pati ako nagulat biglang ganito eh,” shared Joem. That’s just how it is with moving on. You surprise yourself sometimes. You learn new things, and eventually get better. No matter what the result on Sunday, or even future games for Adamson may be, it’s not far-fetched to call them winners already. They got their second chance, and they’ve made the most out of it.