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San Miguel’s confidence at a high heading into bubble, says Leo Austria

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Coach Leo Austria can still remember the uncertainty of San Miguel’s future heading into the PBA’s 45th season back in March, knowing that it would go to war without top dog June Mar Fajardo. 

The reigning six-time MVP had been ruled out of the season due to a fractured right tibia he suffered in practice last February. It was a tough blow for a Beermen crew looking to extend its Philippine Cup dominion to six.

“At the start of the conference, we really don’t know what will happen,” Austria told Sports Page Tuesday.

“I was able to talk to Dr. Canlas during the first day ng injury niya. Tinatanong ko kung hanggang kailan. [Sabi] At least ten to twelve months.”

But this is the squad that has ruled the All-Filipino conference in the last five seasons. And its confidence returned when SMB mauled long-time rivals Magnolia, 94-78, in the season-opener last March 8.

“But after the first game, it gave us a lot of confidence because we were up against Magnolia and we’re able to play a good game,” said Austria, as the Hotshots were the Beermen’s foes in the last two Philippine Cup FInals.

That game remains the only game played so far this season, though. Days after the opener, the league hierarchy decided to suspend all activities with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) starting to infect the country.

The reigning Coach of the Year admitted that it was a challenge for the coaches in ensuring that the players remained in form, with gyms and fitness centers closed to the public for months due to the pandemic.

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“For us coaches, it’s really hard for us dahil hindi namin alam kung paano ime-maintain ng conditioning ng mga players. But we’re relying only on their professionalism,” said Austria.

Pro sports finally received the green light by the Inter-Agency Task Force to practice last July. Then ball clubs finally got back into action last August as community quarantine measures eased up once more.

And the decorated bench tactician feels extremely glad that no one from the Beermen slacked off during the long break. “I’m so happy with my team dahil nobody gained weight. Talagang playing weight pa rin sila,” he said.

Austria also added that his storied squad also retained the confidence from that dominant victory over the Hotshots, who are definitely hungry to exact revenge.

Still, the eight-time champion coach constantly reminds his players to stay locked in. He also warned that it will be a “free-for-all” conference, as the other teams are keen to pounce on Fajardo’s absence and vie for the title.

“We should be ready. But the good thing is, the players realized that they will play without June Mar, so everybody’s commitment is really there. And I told them that this conference is a free-for-all e. Everybody’s vying for the championship, so expect a tough challenge mula sa bawa’t isa, dahil alam nila na this is the opportunity for every team,” said the 62-year-old, now in his seventh season at the helm of SMB.

“Ang kumpiyansa ng team ay talagang mataas pa rin, but we will know because after the pandemic, hindi mo alam ang mangyayari. The good thing with this pandemic is, naging equalizer ito dahil ngayon sabay-sabay tayo nag-start ng individual workouts, sabay-sabay tayong pupunta sa bubble.”

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