UAAP 78 Preview: Ateneo Blue Eagles

To top it all off - especially since it’s my last year - it’s only going to take a championship for me to do that. - Kiefer Ravena

Critical losses: Chris Newsome, Nico Elorde, 
Vital returnees: Kiefer Ravena, Von Pessumal, Fonzo Gotladera, Arvin Tolentino
Notable additions: Mike Nieto, Matt Nieto, Isaac Go, Aaron Black, Ikeh Chibueze, Jerie Pingoy
Head coach: Bo Perasol
Last title: 2012
Style of play: Isolation, 4-shooters out, quick
Last season’s record: 11-3 (1st)

MANILA, Philippines – Coming in with a revamped line-up laden with rookies, not many analysts had the Ateneo Blue Eagles as a bonafide contender for the UAAP title in 2014. 

But it didn’t take long for Ateneo, in its second year under Coach Bo Perasol’s tutelage, to quickly turn heads. Kiefer Ravena came out of the gates on fire, eventually carrying that momentum into winning a UAAP MVP award. Freshman Arvin Tolentino was fantastic in the first round, and that was enough to land him the Rookie of the Year plum. Chris Newsome, Von Pessumal, Nico Elorde, and company proved to be solid rotation pieces.

The Blue Eagles topped the eliminations with an 11-3 record to earn a twice-to-beat edge, but had a bad matchup in the NU Bulldogs that eventually led to their demise. 

In 2015, the Blue Eagles return with a similar issue of having to quickly incorporate their newbies in order to give the veterans a better chance at leaving with a title.

“There’s a great difference between the composition of my team this year and last year’s, primarily because of the presence of the rookies,” admits Perasol, a former player for the UP Maroons. 

“Well, we have good potential, but just like any other team, they need to grow and mature, and the only way to do that is for them to play lots of games.”

“From last year, we really didn’t have that much rookies and ngayon, sobrang daming (now, there are a lot of) rookies, so yung (the) adjustment, medyo malaki (is quite big) when it comes to the system,” says Ravena, “but we’re confident naman (anyway) with the team that we have and I think the coaches prepared us well enough.”

The Nieto brothers, who led Ateneo’s junior’s team to a UAAP title in Season 77, will now go up against bigger, better competition. After a two-year wait due to his residency, Jerie Pingoy is expected to finally show what he’s capable of. Even athletic standout Aaron Black, though unheralded, has the potential to turn heads. The list goes on.

Ateneo’s future is clearly in good hands with their top-notch recruits, although that future will have to develop sooner than later in order for the present to have a chance at a championship finish.

“With Jerie, we know what he can do, and then the Nieto twins, they’re very reliable, so hopefully they stay healthy. Ayun naman ang kalaban talaga, diba (that’s really the opponent, right)? Injuries. And hopefully we get to pass everything and everything just falls into place,” says Ravena.

“Well, I’m so excited kasi (becuase) it’s been two years nga na nawala ako sa liga (that I haven’t been around),” says Pingoy, a former standout for FEU in high school. 

“Ito na yung chance ko, opportunity to play [for] our team, Ateneo. Sobrang excited ako kasi ito yung chance ko na mapakita ko na kayo ko rin.”

(This is my chance and opportunity to play for Ateneo. I’m so excited because I have a chance to show I can play.)

Pingoy is another ball-handler who can help out Ravena, and with the athletic and skilful Newsome now in the PBA, the reigning UAAP MVP is going to welcome all the help he can get to take pressure off his shoulders.

Nicknamed “The Phenom,” Ravena has had a stellar UAAP career that already includes two championships (2011, 2012). But now the leader and captain of these Blue Eagles for the past two seasons, he’s hungrier than ever for that third ring - an accomplishment that will allow him to leave the university with a glorious final bow.

“To top it all off - especially since it’s my last year - it’s only going to take a championship for me to do that,” says the 21-year-old superstar. 

“I think wala nang iba and yun lang naman yung goal ko talaga (there’s nothing else and that’s my only goal) - is to win.”

“Kiefer is a very competitive person. He’s not just skilful, he’s not just a leader, but he challenges himself every time,” says Perasol. “This is his last year. There’s a lot of motivation left in himself to bring back the championship.”

CHAMPIONSHIP SEARCH. Kiefer Ravena is looking to end his UAAP career with a bang. File photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

CHAMPIONSHIP SEARCH. Kiefer Ravena is looking to end his UAAP career with a bang.

File photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

But it’s more than just the hardware for Ravena. Although he’s certified to leave a lasting impression once he moves on from college, there’s still a certain legacy he wants to make sure remains when people think of his name in an Ateneo jersey.

“I want them to think about me just being a winner and a person who was able to inspire a lot of people.”

Ready to step up

Ravena, however, will need more than just the rookies to mature quicker in order to have a shot against NU, FEU, La Salle, or whomever else shines as a contender. 

Newsome played the perfect Pippen to Ravena’s Jordan last season, finishing in the league’s Mythical 5 selection thanks to his scoring, rebounding, and headstrong defense. But with Newsome no longer around, the responsibility he had now falls on the shoulders of Pessumal and the other veterans.

“It’s a much bigger role [for me] this season. I can’t even put it into words because a lot of veterans have been gone. Actually, it’s just me, Kiefer, and Gwayne, and Fonso that are leading the right now, so a lot of weight are on our shoulders, but we’re up to the task,” says Pessumal, who’s excited to show off the other aspects of his game and erase the “shooter” label on him, despite having shown his talent for knocking down 3s last year.

“Actually, when people label me as a shooter, sometimes I get irritated because I know I’m not just a shooter; I know I’m a much-better player that that, more complete player,” he says. 

“In high school, I couldn’t even shoot, but in college I think I just worked on it. I think right now, I’m just ready to take my game to the next level.”

Pessumal knows he has to improve his game in his last season, not only for a future in basketball for himself, but because of the weight that comes with wearing the Ateneo name on his chest every UAAP game.

“When you put on an Ateneo uniform, there’s always pressure to win. Always pressure to win. That never goes away. The culture here, the history behind Ateneo, it’s always been ‘You have to win,’ so I guess for all the players who chose to study in this school, to play for Ateneo, it comes with it,” he says.

Here’s another critical key to being a Blue Eagle: despite the make-up of their roster, many rookies or not, the championship-or-bust expectations will always be there. 

“Again, our culture in the team is we will always fight for the all-the-way thing,” says Perasol. “We don’t just aim for the Final Four, whatever, we want to be there. That’s the first step. But we’re always thinking all the way. It’s going to be a difficult uphill climb for us, but definitely our minds and our hearts are set into it.”

“I believe the Ateneo Blue Eagles can win the championship again, with whatever we have right. Again, as I said, it’s going to be a great challenge but I believe we can.”

His team captain agrees.

“It’s not just for me. It’s for each and every one of us,” says Ravena. “Yun lang yung goal namin, and gusto talaga namin magawa. Nagtutulungan talaga kami. Very blessed kami na nabibigyan kami nang maraming opportunities nang coaching staff namin, so hopefully ma-capitalize namin yan when it comes to the season.”

(That’s really our goal, and we really want to accomplish it. We’re helping each other out. We’re very blessed that we’ve been given many opportunities by our coaching staff, so hopefully we get to capitalize on that when the season starts.)

Pessumal, on the other hand, isn’t lacking in confidence.

“Yes, Ateneo will win the championship,” he says. 

– Rappler.com

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