The National College of Business and Arts Wildcats were virtual unknowns coming into the Spikers’ Turf Collegiate Conference. They were only one of two teams that didn’t play in either the UAAP or NCAA, and, aside from their two guest players, their roster had no names that jumped out as immediate threats.
As the season went along, the Wildcats took names and dished out pain, nabbing wins over well known programs like FEU, La Salle (twice), UE, and CSB. If there was surprise this season, it was how NCBA performed, even hanging with the eventual champs, Ateneo in four sets.
It turns out, defeating well-known teams isn’t new for the NCBA program. For years, the Wildcats have been outperforming UAAP and NCAA teams in non-televised tournaments like the Uni Games and the InterCol tourney in Baguio among many. In their home league, the Universities and Colleges of Luzon Athletics Association (UCLAA), NCBA is the standout team, having won the title there for the past three years.
Their head coach, Ernesto Balubar, wasn’t shocked at how the media seemingly treated each of their wins like an incredible upset. “We do not belong to the so-called elite circle. So every time na nananalo kami against teams that belong to the UAAP or NCAA, wala akong naiisip na dahilan para hindi maging proud. This the reward of all the things that we do in trainings and the sacrifices of each member of the team – in spite of the fact na rigid ang academic requirements sa amin and especially for some of my players that are also working students.”
His Wildcats earned a 2-3 record in the first round of eliminations to advance. In the following phase, NCBA opened with a wild, come-from-behind win over the DLSU Spikers. They repeated the feat, erasing a steady CSB lead in their following match for another nail-biting win before succumbing to Ateneo and UP in their two following matches. Facing a La Salle side, who got some last minute help from two guest players for their do-or-die match, NCBA inched past the squad from Taft in the first two thrilling sets then booking their ticket to the Final Four with a resounding win in the third set despite having to suddenly switch guest players.
The fairy tale seemed to end there for the Wildcats with Ateneo dispatching them in their semis series, then EAC unloading their frustrations on them in their bronze medal series.
Balubar admitted that he fully expected his team to go on to the Finals when the season started, but was still somewhat satisfied with his team’s improvement through the tournament. “Kailangan pa namin mag-mature. I have players that seemingly tumigil ang improvement since simula ng Spikers’ Turf. The good thing is naipakita sa amin kung ano pa ‘yung kulang namin as a team.”
In their final game, a straight set loss to the Generals, Balubar opted to bench guest player, Edwin Tolentino, to expose his collegiate wards. Keeping his roster in tact will be key for Balubar as his team jumps back into the fire in the upcoming months with the Uni Games and UCLAA right around the corner.
Balubar, however, is already brooding on a comeback to the Spikers’ Turfs next seasons. “If we get invited back, we’ll be a stronger team. Hopefully, most of my players have already improved a lot by then,” Balubar closed.
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