“Mayhem” has been synonymous to the Green Archers’ brand of play in the last two seasons. But at the start of 2018, the term has taken a whole new meaning for them after all the unfortunate and unexpected turn of events that took place just a month after being dethroned.
From having the right pieces in place to become a consistent championship contender, La Salle found itself without their best player and their coach that led them to two consecutive finals appearances. Along with the departure of other key players due to reasons that remain unclear to this day, the team had no other choice but to start things all over again.
Assistant Coach Louie Gonzales, who did not join Aldin Ayo’s move to UST, was given the opportunity to take over at the helm. The Green Archers managed to shore up its frontline by acquiring 6’8 Taane Samuel from New Zealand and 6’9 Fil-Aussie Brandon Bates. They also recruited high school standouts Encho Serrano and Joaqui Manuel.
With only seven players returning from last season, the outlook wasn’t good – but it wasn’t that bad either. The Green Archers were able to put up a decent performance in the preseason which included stints in two overseas pocket tournaments. Despite having less talent and depth, they were very much capable to make a surprise run in Season 81.
Unfortunately, luck was not on their side as Samuel went down with a foot injury in their first game of the season and was expected to miss two months. In addition, team captain Kib Montalbo fractured his left thumb in a game against UE which sidelined him two weeks. Even with the injuries, the Green Archers played well enough to end the first round at 4-3.
In round two, the team was in in a position to tie Adamson for the second spot in the standings but they would eventually lose that pivotal, low-scoring match against the Falcons. The impact of that loss would be felt later on in the tournament.
With two games left in the elimination round, the Green Archers were sporting a 8-4 record, just needing one more win to advance to the semis and still very much in contention to force a playoff for a twice-to-beat advantage.
Everything appeared to be going well for them at that point after three straight wins. It looked like they are peaking at the right time. And with Samuel set to return, all the more they were expected to perform much better as they battle defending champion Ateneo and streaking UP.
However, La Salle badly lost in those two matches which later on resulted to a triple tie between them, UP and FEU. The Fighting Maroons got the third seed due to a higher quotient thus finally ending their two-decade semis drought. The Green Archers and Tamaraws, meanwhile, were set to dispute the last berth in the Final Four.
In the knockout match, the Green Archers saw themselves leading by two in the closings seconds. However, FEU’s Arvin Tolentino hit a three at the top of the key to put the Tams up by one with less than a second left in the game clock. With one more chance to win it, coach Louie made a well-designed inbound play for Santi Santillan underneath the rim. Santillan though caught the ball too deep to make a decent attempt.
Season over for La Salle. They missed the semis for the second time in the last four years. Our season crushed once again by a three-point shot.
Overall, the Green Archers had all the chances in the world to not only reach the final four, but even the finals as well. With that, we can’t help but ask ourselves if Samuel’s return towards the latter part of the season had an effect on the team’s chemistry, having played so many games already without him. But what is certain though is that if he had not been injured right from the start, the results would have likely been different.
Perhaps the silver lining for Season 81 is the emergence of Justine Baltazar as the 3rd-year center held his own against bigger foreign centers and went on to land a spot in the Mythical Five.
Of course, the 5th place finish was enough reason for the team management to hit the reset button once again. A complete revamp of the coaching staff took place towards the end of the year. Montalbo and Santillan both played out their final year of eligibility while Samuel decided to return home after just one season.
With a program that has consistently been rebuilding, the Green Archers, for years, still lack a sustainable program that can make the team a consistent contender year in and year out.
And after all the personnel changes we have witnessed this decade, it is our hope that the team finally has the right system in place next season that will not just yield short-term results but ultimately, sustained success in the long run.
Because at the end of the day, all of us – the team, the school community just want one thing…. to win!!