At the 5:44 mark of the 4th quarter during yesterday’s win over the UST Growling Tigers, along with the thick LaSallian crowd in attendance I caught a glimpse of the future of the De La Salle Green Archers: a long outlet pass off a UST miss to Abu Tratter standing at the top of the key, then a quick pass to Julian Sargent streaking from the left wing for the bang and the bucket with the reverse, pushing the lead to 8, 65-57.
Earlier a Robert Bolick 3-point bomb to end the third, followed by a monster block on Aljun Mariano on a fast break attempt. A corner 3 and another and-1 on a one-man fast break by Sargent, the all-around continuing brilliant play of Prince Rivero, and Tratter with gutsy baskets and holding his own against Karim Abdul, capped off by a friendly wave goodbye to the UST center whose weary, anguished face after committing his last foul clearly echoed the writing on the wall: you have to come better prepared to keep up with the quick, physical and athletic Green Archers.
Except for the hard drives of Jeron Teng, these are not adjectives one would normally hear thrown around to describe this La Salle team, as supporters are more accustomed to the slow, grind out games where the offense revolves around pounding it to the post and meticulously moving the ball to find the open shot.
But with five men down, including the starting point guard and more essentially the two premier bodies of the formidable La Salle frontline, Coach Juno Sauler smoothly allows the transition to a quicker style of play by tapping his reserves once again to play heavy minutes and dictate the pace without sacrificing the inside toughness and all around aggressiveness.
While it may seem like a fluke and be brushed off as fresh meat merely getting their fifteen minutes, anyone who has closely studied the nuances of this team will now know that all the previously erratic substitution patterns and rotations dating back to the preseason tournament are finally paying off, reaching its height in the previous two games against less formidable teams wherein the bench was allowed to gain more confidence and valuable game time wear and tear. Also reminding me of something that Almond Vosotros confided shortly before the Filoil tournament started, how Coach Sauler remained eerily calm despite suffering a couple of blowout losses in tune up games, in the midst of deciphering the new makeup of his team due to the influx of first year players. The Juno Sauler experiment, Season 77 edition.
But aside from the depth and new-found flexibility that allows this La Salle team to shift into different styles of play depending on the opponent and game situations, the added weapons on both offense and defense seem to do wonders for Teng, Vosotros and Jason Perkins who now don’t have to play as many minutes and are allowed to ease in and out more efficiently into their individual styles of play, minus all the pressure of having to take all the shots even under duress.
With the bench adding depth on the defensive end as well, with quickness on transition, length on the perimeter and added heft inside the paint, this moves us closer to the team equilibrium Coach Sauler likely seeks: a complete team that is greater than the sum of its parts, not having to rely on just a handful of players to shoot the lights out of the arena.
Bloodied and crippled, kicked and undermanned, aside from “Who do your really need to stop on this La Salle team?” (more so once the roster is back in full force), yesterday’s win should send another strong message to the rest of the league heading into the second round of eliminations: you can knock this team around, but it won’t be that easy to knock the defending champions out. Who aren’t even running on all cylinders yet.
Midway through the eliminations, on a 5-game winning streak, I am certain Coach Sauler can’t be anywhere near a state of contentment with all the areas that still need improvement. A look at the team statistics at this stage only fortifies this notion: While leading the league in second chance points (9.6) and being second in rebounding (46.1), the Green Archers are sort of in the middle of the pack in important offensive and defensive categories: fourth in scoring at 72.1 while holding their opponents to 66.1 (3rd), 3rd in field goal shooting (40.6%), 3rd in assists with 15.6, and of course turnovers, 5th best (or 4th worst) in the league with 18.3.
Maybe decent numbers in a certain light, but nowhere near acceptable for a team that marches to its own beat and held to a higher standard by its coach and the proud institution they represent. Not only are this season’s larger goals definitely the same: staying on top of the mountain compared to reaching the peak during the previous year. But the day to day, game to game objectives still hold true to the gospel of relentless pursuit of excellence, on and off the court, in playing the game they love, conducting oneself in the proper way throughout the entire process, making sure that all of us remain proud–High and Bright–at the end of it all.
Because numbers and the tangible fruits of labor only tell half the story of this La Salle team. Finding myself seated next to the parents of Abu Tratter during the game against the Fighting Maroons and striking up friendly conversation, I was embraced in that particular warmth which runs through the crowd in green each time I watch the games that never gets old even after more than two decades; where you end up emphatically high fiving people you’ve never met before during moments of exaltation, and exchanging words of consolation when the going gets tough.
It was an all too familiar pervading sense of family and home, as I joined the proud parents in vigorously cheering on this La Salle team, as if each single player was their child, and keeping that confident grin on their faces even during missteps and botched plays. All in the middle of comparing war stories on how managing to get to the game venue each time isn’t always easy, and harmlessly chiding a UP supporter who happened to sit in between us.
It was also the equal pride and giddiness on their faces which reminded me that what binds this family, this community, is that opportunity to be an active part of the immeasurable passion, excellence, and greatness unfolding on the hardcourt. Every chance we get.
As we cheer our lungs out for the reserves and newcomers like the youngest siblings often neglected finally getting their day in the sun, our more lauded players like big brothers who stand up to all the roughhousing and attempts at bullying, and the assistant coaches like doting uncles who are always ready to hand out words of encouragement and wisdom to these eager minds, it is the head coach—our cool hand luke patriarch–who stoically and nonchalantly oversees it all with an enigmatic quality of passion that defies labels. A silent, methodical man who is the right of amount of mind and the right amount of heart, unfazed by all the noise, walking around with more than a few quick quips and the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche in his back pocket.
Because if our collective pride and faith was bred by our alma mater, and if beneath all the X’s and O’s this team primarily runs on depth of character, then on any given game day we’ll always find a rightful home in the house that Juno Sauler built.