MANILA, Philippines - There’s something about playing for De La Salle University; a kind of feeling that lives only in the heart of someone who has worn the green and white colors of the Green Archers.
Maybe it’s the instant public popularity - a privilege of playing for one of the most known institutions in the country in an insanely popular league which is the UAAP.
Maybe it’s embracing the passion of the team’s fans during every game, from cheering their players to (respectfully) ridiculing their opponents throughout an entire 40-minute stretch.
Maybe it’s the immense pressure from some alumni who expect multiple championships rings. Unfair, yes. But a reality? Definitely.
Or maybe it’s just that awareness of playing the most popular game in the country, where you’ll find a ball bouncing in nearly every street and corner in almost any city, for a school whose history of success in the sport is transcending.
“You get to play and represent your school, an institution, at the same time you know you put in all your hard work into it without getting paid,” former Green Archer TY Tang once said about playing for DLSU.
According to La Salle legend Renren Ritualo, “Pag suot mo na yung La Salle jersey, may halong pride na yan tsaka honor eh (When you’re wearing the La Salle jersey, there’s a mixture of pride and honor).”
High school stars Jollo Go and Andrei Caracut knew this. They knew it from the start, when as little kids falling in love with the game they had already dreamt of what it might be like playing in front of thousands of souls at the Araneta Coliseum while dribbling to the beat of the DLSU crowd chanting, “Animo La Salle!”
They dreamt of that moment. Year after year, as each hour passed by in the gym where they worked to refine their games, they hoped to one day be good enough to join a list of great names such as Ritualo, Macmac Cardona, Joseph Yeo, Tang, JVee Casio, and many others who earned the adoration and love from thousands of students and alumni of the school located in the heart of Taft Avenue.
“It was my dream since I was a kid,” Go, a product of Hope Christian High School, said about joining De La Salle, “and I was given a chance by the coaches there and by God to play for my dream school.”
“I was very excited from the time they started recruiting me,” shared Andrei Caracut, a star from San Beda high school, “because it’s really my dream to play in the UAAP and it’s always been my dream to play for a great school like La Salle.”
When the UAAP Season 78 kicks off in September, both guys will be comrades in green. They will be part of a La Salle team whose main theme will be about retribution - retribution for falling short of defending their championship in 2014; retribution for a fan base whose hearts were broken by a dagger from Mac Belo on a stormy October night; retribution for a proud school who’s mostly had an “us against the world” mentality.
“I’ll just do my best in every game, whether I’m inserted or not,” said Go.
Pieces for the future
“For me, whatever their instructions are - from my teammates, my coaches - I will just follow and I will do my best to impress them… I’m a role player,” Go said during the press conference for the 2015 NBTC All-Star Game.
“Whatever their instructions are, I’ll do it.”
Go, 18, was the designated shooter for the Batang Gilas U-17 team in the 2014 FIBA World Championship where he averaged 12.4 PPG and went off for 27 points against Argentina. This past season, he was also one of the main guys for Hope Christian High School.
His deadly stroke has garnered comparisons to great lefty PBA snipers like Jeff Chan and Allan Caidic, the latter an assistant coach in DLSU. It’s hard to predict whether he’ll ever live up to those comparisons, but here’s one thing that’s certain: he is a microwave - the type that can go on hot shooting sprees once he gets going.
“In my opinion, shooting’s my role now. I’m always being guided by Coach Allan - whenever my form is wrong, he’d correct it,” said Go, who will replace the resident shooter role left by the graduation of Almond Vosotros.
“They correct me when I make mistakes,” he says of how his practices with teammates have gone so far. “Of course, there’s a different adjustment when playing in practice. The mistakes I make in practice, they teach me how to correct them.”
Fortunately for the 5-foot-11 rook, he doesn’t have to go through these challenges alone. He has Caracut with him, along with two other incoming La Salle freshmen whose names have yet to be formally announced.
Each trial and tribulation that comes with transitioning from high school to college - from the classes they take, to the change in social life, to the intensified practices, to the annual tradition of rookie initiation at the Animo Rally - they will get to go through it together, for better or worse.
“Of course. Once I knew that I’d be with Jollo in La Salle, I said it wouldn’t be hard because there would be someone I’m close to with me. I’m excited to play with him together in one school,” said Caracut, who recently led San Beda to their sixth straight NCAA juniors championship.
Caracut, 5-foot-11, put up 14.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game in the NCAA. In the game three clincher against Mapua in the finals, he exploded for 30 points and 9 rebounds, displaying the kind of clutch gene that will make him an instant favorite in the UAAP for La Salle fans, and a terror for their opponents.
While Go had to choose between La Salle or UST, Caracut was faced with three viable options: stay a San Beda product in college, swap red for blue by heading to Ateneo, or join the other side by agreeing to go green with La Salle.
“In La Salle, from the beginning, they were already watching the games,” Caracut said about the recruitment process. “One time, I was toured around La Salle. They showed the school, the dorm, the cafeteria. I appreciated it. They were really texting me, they introduced me to Mr. Danding Conjuangco. They were interested. They were really interested from the start.”
Sure, becoming a Red Lion offered Caracut an opportunity to live in San Beda lionization - he would become the institution’s poster boy who stayed in the NCAA, possibly extending the school’s current five-year championship reign much longer.
But he wanted to go to the UAAP.
Ateneo’s rotation of guards for the next few years, with incoming pieces like Jerie Pingoy, Hubert Cani, and CJ Perez, made a high-minutes rotation spot unsure. La Salle, on the other hand, was a different story.
“It’s also because of my position,” he said about picking the Green Archers. “[Starting point guard] Thomas Torres is already in his fourth year. Almond Vosotros has graduated already. La Salle is really the best choice for me.”
Looking forward to the future
Green Archers superstar Jeron Teng has two years left of eligibility. Arnold Van Opstal has a season remaining. With off-court issues arising, it’s uncertain when Ben Mbala will see action for the Green and White.
La Salle will need a new batch of stars to carry the torch along with rising stars like Prince Rivero and Jason Perkins; a new breed of players who will continue the winning tradition for a school who has, for the most part, always been in the UAAP’s championship discussion.
Is there pressure? Absolutely. Caracut and Go knew it from the moment they agreed to take pictures with Mr. Cojuangco, confirming their commitments.
For the next five years, assuming they play out their entire allowable tenures, the duo will have to live up to, if not exceed, the vast expectations of DLSU alumni and fans. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But if they succeed, they will be feverishly admired by the La Salle community.
“For me, the pressure doesn’t really come,” said Caracut. “They always say that we’re ‘highly recruited.’ There’s pressure, but for us, if we’re ready for the game, if we prepare well for the season, then it’s not going to be difficult for us.”
“For me, I take it as a challenge because I need to face them,” according to Go, who other than his responsibilities on the court, will also have to earn passing marks to graduate with a Business Management degree. (“Since I was a kid, it’s been my dream to open a successful business,” he said.)
“We all know how popular La Salle is,” he said. “The people there, you can really see how supportive they are of their team, so I’m very excited to get to play for them.”
Sure, the upcoming challenges for the duo will be far from easy. Training will be hard. The games will be even more grueling. When the two first step on to the Big Dome or the MOA Arena for an Ateneo-La Salle encounter, who knows whether they will step up to the challenge or if they will submit to the nerves of the rivalry’s always intense battles.
But they will have a championship-caliber head coach in Sauler to lead them. They will have a leader in Teng, among others in the team, to guide them through the long and taxing process of becoming high-caliber UAAP players. And most of all, they will have a rabid fan base supporting them every step of the way.
“Whenever I would watch UAAP [before], I always used to say, one day I hope to play for that school,” Go said about La Salle.
Now, he will.
“Whatever I can give, I’ll give it for the school because, me, I just want to win,” said Caracut. “I just want to win. I want to know the feeling of winning a championship in the UAAP.”
But first, of course, he says he has “to learn to love La Salle,” and promised that “he’s going to.”
After all, according to Caracut, “parang girlfriend lang ‘yan.”
Quotes from Go and Caracut in this story were translated from Filipino to English.