Fil-Am Raffy Verano on joining the Ateneo Blue Eagles
MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo Blue Eagles have quite the collection of new recruits joining the team in 2016.
You have Xavier standout Tyler Tio, a fundamentally-sound prospect whose game is tailor-made for college hoops. There’s Jolo Mendoza, the hero of the Blue Eaglets who’s been compared to Kiefer Ravena. And then the other graduates of the Ateneo junior’s program, from Shaun Ildefonso to Gian Mamuyac to BJ Andrade, each of whom has the potential to make an impact in the higher level.
These players and what they can do on the court aren’t unknown to Filipino fans. They’ve been raised in the basketball-crazy environment of the Philippines, and their high school careers have revealed their potentials.
The same cannot be said for Raffy Verano, a 6-foot-3 student-athlete from California who’s moving to the Philippines to play for Ateneo this fall.
Is he athletic? His dunk videos on Twitter should answer that for you. Can he shoot? He nailed 35% from his attempts from downtown as a high school senior, and that’s against more athletic opponents than the ones you'd see here. Can he do other things? His 16 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.7 steals a game averages point to yes.
But who is he? How did Ateneo recruit him? What does he know about the country he’s travelling half-way across the world to for the first time and a place he will call home for the next few years?
“Sadly I haven’t been to the Philippines to say and I know that’s kind of bad in my part, but I’m very excited to start a new chapter of my life, to experience everything, to learn about my heritage,” he told Rappler in an exclusive interview. “Everything will be new and eye-opening for me.”
Joining the Blue Eagles’ nest
Verano, 18, did not go into detail about how his recruitment occurred, but made it clear that a commitment to Ateneo was always imminent.
“The recruitment process was eye-opening to me a little bit,” he said during a Skype conversation.
“It was always in the back of my head - having the option to go. But I also wanted to see if I can expand here. But in the back of my head I kinda knew I was going to head towards home and it was just a great experience being recruited by one of the top schools out there and being given the opportunity to play.”
The student-athlete admits there “were a couple” of US NCAA schools which came recruiting, as well as a few other Philippine-based universities which were interested, but “Ateneo was the better fit for me educational-wise,” he believes.
“I just kinda kept my main focus on Ateneo.”
It’s not difficult to imagine why leaving the United States to play college basketball in Ateneo was tempting. The school is reputable for its outstanding education. The basketball program’s history is as rich as there is, with the Blue Eagles recently winning 5 straight UAAP titles from 2008-2012 and making two more Final Four appearances since.
And let’s not forget that Ateneo's head coach just happens to be current men's national basketball team coach Tab Baldwin, whose pedigree of success in the sport dates back years.
“He told me a lot about how he’s trying to develop [the Ateneo Blue Eagles], trying to make it more of a leadership kind of role,” Verano said about his conversations with the 57-year-old head coach.
“I think the rest was kinda more casual. I asked about how the school was, how the teammates were, just trying to get a feel for everything.”
And how about the other challenges of being an Ateneo student? “They told me a lot. They told me it would be tough to manage time but as a person that goes harder in the books than at the gym, I should be fine,” said Verano, who had a 3.0 GPA in high school.
Fueled by competition
Verano’s athletic prowess, skill-set, and, fair or not, being a Filipino-American make the expectations for his arrival lofty. That’s not to say the anticipation is that he’ll produce 20 points a game right away, although every time he hits the court, Ateneo fans and UAAP spectators are likely to expect an instant impact.
In terms of his confidence, Verano believes that can be the case. “I think definitely hustle and rebounding. I think I can contribute a little bit of shooting as well. I’ll do whatever it takes to get a W and help my team and coaching staff,” he states, also mentioning he sees himself playing either the small or power forward positions.
But before even getting UAAP minutes, he’s undoubtedly going to have to show his worth in practice sessions. Aside from the aforementioned incoming rookies mentioned, the Blue Eagles’ list of returning second year players is arguably the best of the UAAP: Aaron Black, Matt Nieto, Adrian Wong, Jerie Pingoy, and Hubert Cani.
2014 Rookie of the Year Arvin Tolentino is also set to return along with Thirdy Ravena, whose academics are now in order. There’s also CJ Perez, nicknamed “Baby Beast” for the resemblance of his game to Calvin Abueva’s, who’s set to take the torch from Kiefer Ravena as the Blue Eagles’ go-to guy.
“It’s actually exciting,” Verano says about the contention for minutes among Ateneo’s heavy perimeter players rotation. “It was great I heard that. It gives more competition and competitiveness in everyone in practice, and it will just get everyone better. That’s what it’s all about.”
After all, he isn’t a stranger to competition and facing the odds. Verano himself said most of his high school teams were underdogs, but that didn’t stop them from winning championships in tourneys like the Energy Class tournament or the Westside League.
He is, however, entering a new ball park. Gone are those days playing in packed gyms where the stakes weren’t as high as the ones he’ll face wearing Ateneo’s blue-and-white jersey in a filled Smart Araneta Coliseum or Mall of Asia Arena. Those cheers he used to hear in California will now be replaced by the pounding of drums during high-intensity UAAP matches, where one needs nerves of steel to stand out.
“It excites me and it’s also a bit nerve-racking to be honest. I haven’t dealt with crowds as big as coliseums being filled, but it’s definitely exciting,” he said.
“It will be a huge transition for me,” he also mentioned, “but like I said, I’m very, very open to new experiences and to experience everything and hopefully I can adjust really quick…”
When Verano’s commitment was made official on his Twitter account, one of the first people to congratulate him was Kiefer Ravena, the former two-time UAAP MVP who recently played his final year with the Blue Eagles.
@raffyverano congrats bro!!— Kiefer Ravena (@kieferravena) March 15, 2016
“We met through the Impact Training over [in Las] Vegas and then we just exchanged some words there,” Verano said about the time he was introduced to the former UAAP superstar. “It was a great honor to play and guard him as through the training, and yeah I look forward to working out with everybody out there.”
Asked what he looked forward to about relocating to the Philippines, the student-athlete said: “One thing I really would want to do is head to a beach, to be honest. I heard it’s very beautiful and nice and relaxing so I think that would be one of the top things sometime. And then the food.” – Rappler.com