Despite Almond Vosotros confiding right after one of the team practices in the Enrique Razon Sports Center, roughly a month before this year’s Filoil Flying V Premier Cup opened, that the Green Archers had modest goals for this particular tournament due to the influx of newcomers still grasping Coach Juno Sauler’s system, Sunday’s championship-clinching win over the San Beda Red Lions once again presents us rock-solid proof that the habit of winning truly is an integral part of Coach Sauler’s ways.
And while the Filoil tournament does serve, to a large extent, as a warm up for the participating teams’ mother leagues and grounds to determine final rosters, that highly intense game between two champions in front of a thick, raucous crowd equal parts green and red reflected the nearly immeasurable hunger to win of both teams.
Right from the opening tip, the aggressive and pinpoint play on both ends of the court of the Red Lions clearly showed they came prepared. With that same energy permeating their supporters in attendance, I could sense that their loss to the Green Archers in the PCCL semifinals in December was still fresh on their minds. There was much more at stake here than a preseason tournament title.
With their pesky defense on La Salle’s ballhandlers and active hands in the passing lanes causing early turnovers, coupled with aggressive switches off screens, the Red Lions disrupted many of the Green Archers’ early halfcourt sets. This also inevitably led to too many transition baskets.
Their offense was likewise spry as constant movement and solid picks set resulted in cutters scoring easy points inside the paint as well as open shooters in the corners. And with Baser Amer lighting it up, going 6-10 from 2-point range and 3-9 from beyond the arc for 23 points, you had San Beda controlling the tempo early on.
The Red Lions also came at the La Salle frontline strong, setting a tone for a physical game which found Arnold Van Opstal and Jason Perkins in early foul trouble, coupled with some extra activity and a technical foul on the latter due to some good ‘ol fashioned in your face defense. San Beda controlled the lead for most of the three quarters, maintaining a relatively comfortable margin that was as high as 12 late in the third.
But under the guidance of Coach Sauler, yet again this La Salle team proved that adversity just brings out the best in them. And for a coach whose pursuit of excellence is unrelenting, the Green Archers kept chipping away and never allowed themselves to completely hand over the reins to San Beda with hardnosed, gritty basketball. One play at a time.
For a head coach who started out as a video coordinator in the pro league and is notorious for watching game tape hours on end as a key part in preparing for match ups, the devil is really all in the details.
Starting out by trusting his bench for most of the third, with his big men in foul trouble and Yutien Andrada just really having an off night, Coach Sauler allowed Van Opstal and Perkins adequate time to rest and nurse their fouls while giving ample minutes to the likes of Abu Tratter and other second stringers despite the San Beda lead threatening to get out of hand.
Both coaches gave heavy minutes to their respective starters, but LA Salle showed its depth as Coach Sauler has slowly played a 10-man rotation as this tournament progressed, pacing his starters and, despite losing a couple of games in the eliminations due to the new rotations, ensuring his boys are always in the thick of the fight in the endgame. San Beda on the other hand simply ran out of gas, with a high of only 6 minutes played by the first man off the bench.
As Perkins, Thomas Torres and Vosotros ate away at the deficit with the game winding down, getting hot from three-point range off good ball movement and by having the floor now spread out, a re-energized Van Opstal started going to work in the post against a winded Ola Adeogun.
Another key move was placing the lengthier Julan Sargent on Amer late in the game, avoiding any rally from the hot-shooting guard. With key steals off sloppy passes and clutch free throws thrown in for good measure, the San Juan Arena was rocking as the Green Archers were crowned champions once again.
By now being the current UAAP, PCCL and Filoil champions, going 3 out of 3 in tournament championship wins under Coach Sauler, the Green Archers are undoubtedly kings of college hoops. Helmed by a coach that has remained hungry, focused and grounded amidst all the revelry.
Once again, much attention has veered towards Coach Sauler’s now notorious trademark pursuit of excellence. Never one to be satisfied even after winning his first three tournaments as a rookie coach, observing the word and actions of this man again gives us a glimpse of both the system he continues to instill and its enigmatic character.
Maybe it’s the entire coaching staff being self-aware as mentors more than anything else, guiding these players on and off the court, never lashing out at errors or sub-par play. Always placing encouragement and motivation at the forefront, especially through the lows that come with all the highs.
Maybe it’s the likes of Amond Vosotros upping his game late in the tournament, adding new dimensions to his game, admittedly for the sake of management, alumni and community support. Or Arnold Van Opstal adding fire by staking out a personal mission for the graduating players on this team as well as the newcomers, providing new depth to winning beyond the frills and hype.
Maybe it’s Jeron Teng’s game that has no place for ego, only continuous evolution that places the team first and where personal accolades merely become a by-product of collective glory. Or maybe it’s even the players who sacrifice minutes, mindful of their respective roles, yet support each other unconditionally, under a system that aims to teach the game the way it should be played through constant drills, grueling practices and invaluable life lessons.
It is this seemingly indefinable character that lies at the heart of this team’s winning ways. Character that is probably best described through the words of University President Br. Ricky Laguda, as he addressed the community at the end of UAAP season 76, taking off from the story of Bob Ladouceur (a Lasallian American football coach from De La Salle High School, Concord, California, which owns the longest winning streak in football history):
“It is not about victories. It’s about the De La Salle way.”
The De La Salle Way is about the care we have for one another during practices, drills, and games. The De La Salle Way is about how we play with passion, intensity, grit and determination. The De La Salle Way is about sportsmanship and fair play, never giving up and always giving one’s best effort…The De La Salle Way is giving honor to the sport we play…and loving the game every minute for what it’s worth. This is what DLSU wants to let the people see of the reality of what we are about when we enjoy the games, whether as an athlete or alumni, coach or manager, faculty or fan.”
Respect. Trust. Gratitude. And putting a premium on how one conducts himself both in triumph and adversity; emphasizing the means rather than the end. Practicing one’s craft with passion and determination, ensuring that when the dust settles, those fists are clenched with fervent pride due to this particular bar that has been set.
High and Bright. Loud and proud. The De La Salle Way.
And so it is within this context that we come another step closer to understanding the ways of Coach Sauler and the Green Archers. Because while titles and crowns are deservingly won, the bigger picture will always remain intact as long as the road towards it is paved with hard work, discipline, devotion and giving value to all the less glamorous details.
With the upcoming UAAP season presenting new challenges to be met, starting with critical decisions to be made on the final roster, all eyes of this La Salle team remain on the true prize that looms larger than tangible rewards, guided by the character and already prevalent legacy of Coach Juno Sauler and the De La Salle way.