There’s a first time for everything, and in UAAP Season 85, Ateneo de Manila High School experienced something new.
Since the inception of the Final Four format in 1993, the Blue Eagles (née, Blue Eaglets) have been the one and only constant. That’s no more in 2022.
A string of 30-year postseason berths has been cut after the Lebron Nieto and Kristian Porter-led outfit registered a 5-9 record, just good for a tie for fifth. They were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture that included traditional powerhouses Nazareth School of National University and Far Eastern University-Diliman, modern-day powerhouse Adamson High School, and the resurgent University of Sto. Tomas.
“Siyempre, masakit, but sabi ko nga sa boys, yung (dating) Eaglets, wala namang makakapagsabi sa kanilang nakapaglaro sila after a pandemic,” expressed head coach Reggie Varilla.
“I think it’s unfair to these young men na naglalaro lang sila ng 15-under, tapos after two and a half years, sasabak sila bigla sa ganito. Regardless, I’m so proud of how this team manned up.”
Ateneo trotted out an essentially brand-new lineup for the Boys’ Basketball Tournament, just like everybody else did. From their Season 82 roster, only Nieto – who had logged 38 minutes in total then – remained.
And after the pandemic put pause on high school competitions for close to three years, the Blue Eagles were only able to put up and then prepare a squad starting October 2022. Their first game in Season 85 was on January 15, 2023.
“Unang-una, we feel blessed that we were able to go back and play basketball. We knew naman coming into this season na our preparation, kulang kasi late na talaga kaming nag-start makapag-practice together,” shared Varilla.
“But proud of my boys na they didn’t use those as an excuse. Yun lang naman mahihingi ko sa kanila.”
Make no mistake, there were more than a few reminders of the signature strong showing from Ateneo throughout the season.
Nieto averaged 16.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.9 steals, all while giving his all as leader – even though the last time around, he was the youngest on the team. Porter proved to be a problem for opposing frontlines, using his size and skill to put up per-game counts of 19.8 markers, 14.9 boards, 2.9 dimes, 1.7 pilfers, and 1.0 blocks.
Late in the season, with their playoff lives on the line, Ateneo turned in its best game yet, upsetting the top-ranked Baby Falcons, 58-55. Ultimately, however, they fell short.
Now, all they can do is look ahead. Nieto may very well be moving on up to the seniors ranks of blue-and-white (can anybody even imagine a Nieto wearing colors other than those?), but Porter will be back for more. And with him leading by example, Varilla is adamant that the Blue Eagles will be better.
“These (graduating players), kahit rookies sila, they’ve paved the way for a new era of Eaglets basketball,” he exclaimed. “Makakapag-start na kami nang maaga next season. Malaking tulong yun, especially for the underclassmen. Part talaga ng growth yung making mistakes e, so hopefully, we’ll get better.
“Hopefully, we’ll get back there.”
Ateneo’s streak of 27 straight playoff appearances came to an end. Don’t expect a streak of playoff absences to be in the offing.