As San Beda University concluded its NCAA Season 98 Seniors Basketball Tournament run with a 62-61 loss against the College of Saint Benilde last November, hope remained high for the squad from Mendiola.
The Red Lions missed a finals appearance by just one point in their first season under the leadership of coach Yuri Escueta, and they were expected to come back even stronger in season 99.
However, the Red Lions faced a tough offseason as a mass exodus began, with many of their key players leaving for greener pastures. The bruising big man JB Bahio’s departure was expected, but joining him was their leading scorer, James Kwekuteye, who also decided to turn pro.
The already ailing San Beda team received worse news later on as Tony Ynot, Justine Sanchez, and Gab Cometa all packed up their bags to move to Benilde, the squad that had eliminated them the previous season.
“The start of the year was really tough on us.
“We lost our starters; all positions were covered. James could have played, only Bahio had to graduate. We lost our starting shooting guard, our starting small forward, and our potential starting point guard,” said Escueta.
“I stayed ready.
“I like to admit that after reading about all the players leaving, I knew I would be the one to step up. Because of that, I’ve been working on my game extra hard to prove a point. And now, this season, hopefully, it pays off,” said the 21-year-old son of Mike Cortez.
In their first game of the season, Cortez and the remaining San Beda squad sent a message to the rest of the league, making sure everyone knew they were still threats to win it all.
The newly retooled Red Lions dominated their first game, defeating Arellano University by 24 points, 85-61. Leading the pride of lions was Cortez himself, who scored 16 points, dished out five assists, made four three-pointers, and recorded two steals to contribute in all aspects for San Beda.
Despite the strong start, Cortez and the rest of the squad are aware that there is much more ahead of them in the upcoming season.
“There’s still a long way to go after the first game, with many more games to be played and opponents to face. We expect many schemes against me and my team, so it’s about staying focused and adapting.”