For the Green Archers, the 79th season of the UAAP began the moment they were booted out of Final Four contention by the FEU Tamaraws. And this new season carried heightened expectations, as high as they had ever been for this team. They had just announced that Aldin Ayo, the man who had piloted the Letran Knights to the NCAA Season 91 title against the San Beda Red Lions, would be the team’s new head coach. Everyone knew that Ben Mbala would finally be eligible after a three-year wait. Most of the team’s veterans would still be around, only this time, they would be highly motivated after missing out on the Final Four. And complementing them would be some of the most talented high school players in the country who were set to don the Green-and-White as rookies.
And not only did the Archers retool during the offseason, but rival schools also reeled from the loss of grizzled veterans due to graduation. Gone were the likes of Mac Belo, Kevin Ferrer, and Kiefer Ravena, who could give a challenge to La Salle. Clearly, the title was theirs for the taking.
And so the proclamations began. This team could go undefeated and book an outright seat in the Finals. They could win every game by double-digits. Everyone else is just battling for second place. The eggs were counted before they even hatched.
Expectations can be a good thing. It means that the fans and supporters of a team believe and have faith in them and their capabilities. But the problem with expectations is that too much of it creates an invisible weight, heaped on the shoulders of the players and the coaching staff, growing heavier with each win, with each blowout, with each highlight play.
So by the time the Archers were set to begin the UAAP season, the expectations were unrealistically high, thanks in part to their unbeaten 10-game run in the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup. In the Press Conference before the start of the season, every head coach picked La Salle as the tournament favorite except for Ayo, who picked FEU, as they were the defending champions.
In my seven years of covering and writing about the Green Archers, no team entered the season with more hyped. Not even the 2014 La Salle squad that was fresh from winning a title had this much hoopla surrounding them. I wanted to have an idea of just how much pressure the players and coaches felt during the season. And as he was basking in the warm glow of victory after winning the championship, Ayo painted a clear picture of how pressure-packed the season was for the Archers.
“Our game against FEU after we lost to Ateneo. Ben Mbala was crying before the game, some of the team managers cried after the game. Kahit ako rin. Before I opened the gate, before I opened Agno, naiyak ako, naisip ko, kung natalo ulit kami sa FEU [after losing to Ateneo], mahirap ang kalalagyan namin.” – Ayo on the Archers’ toughest challenge this season
If anyone says that this championship was handed to the Green Archers on a silver platter, you only have to show them this quote from Ayo himself.
Playing and winning as an underdog is one of the most enduring sports stories. It’s been the subject of numerous movies and documentaries, where teams overcome insurmountable odds to win. But at the other end of the spectrum are teams that are heavily favored to win it all, teams that carry the weight of expectations and were heavily scrutinized throughout the season. Ironically, it was the Archers who had targets on their backs. If they won by less than double-figures, it was seen as a sign of vulnerability. If they won by a rout, they were cautioned anyway, as it could give them overconfidence for their next game.
There were a lot of expectations, and in the end, the Green Archers did not meet all of them, but they did come close. A 13-1 record in the elimination round, the tournament’s best offense, the best rebounding team, and the best team at forcing turnovers. Aljun Melecio bagging the Rookie of the Year Award, and then providing an exclamation point in his performances in the UAAP Finals. Ben Mbala exceeding expectations and winning the MVP Award by a landslide. And of course, Jeron Teng winning Finals MVP on the strength of his 28-point performance in Game 2 of the Finals.
In the end, the Archers did what everyone thought they would do even before the start of the season, which is to win the championship. But to do it despite the burden of heightened expectations, despite the scrutiny, despite the noise surrounding them, both in real life and on social media, makes that feat more impressive.