Just add water: How Iloilo made a competitive MPBL team in weeks

Bob Guerrero on Sep 10, 2019 04:44 PM
Just add water: How Iloilo made a competitive team in weeks
“The reason for our success is the relationships we have with players, and the way they work. They are really committed to improving their games." - Nash Racela, Iloilo United Royals assistant coach (photo by Richard Esguerra)

There are six expansion teams in this Lakan Season of the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League.

But among the cohort of Bacolod, Iloilo, Mindoro, Nueva Ecija, SOCCSKSARGEN, and Bicol, it is the Iloilo United Royals who are sporting the best record as of press time.

Remarkable Achievement

After Monday's 73-67 victory over the Valenzuela Classic in Muntinlupa, Eric Gonzales' team is sporting an 8-5 slate, good for 5th in the South Division, a half game ahead of Bicol. What makes this achievement remarkable is that team owner JJ Javelosa only confirmed the entry of his club in the MPBL in the third week of May.

They were slated to open against SOCCSKSARGEN on June 21, but the debut was moved a week later against Paranaque. On that day they took to the court for first time in style, winning against the Patriots on Richard Escoto's last-second shot. How did they do it? We asked team consultant Nash Racela.

“The process wasn't really easy given the three-week window to come up with a roster. We held try-outs both in Manila as well as in Iloilo. Credit goes to Coach Eric for being able to assemble a competitive team on such short notice,” Racela shared. 

Tamaraw Connections

Personal connections were vital in the creation of this roster. Racela and Gonzales are both coaching lifers who have been around in amateur and pro leagues for ages. How long has Racela been in the coaching game? He was the former coach of Batangas. That's the Batangas BLADES of the old Metropolitan Basketball Association (MBA) that ran from 1998 to 2002. Racela is assisting his brother Olsen with FEU, and he was also previously the head coach there. He and Gonzales have cherry-picked some of the best talents from Morayta. Gonzales is also connected with the green and gold.

Al Francis Tamsi, who lit up Valenzuela for 16 points, is a former Tam, as is JR Parker, who pumped in eight points on Monday.

But the biggest talisman that Iloilo has at its disposal is Escoto. The versatile 3 is another ex-FEU standout who has caught the eye of MPBL commish Kenneth Duremdes. Before the game he spoke freely about the Angeles, Pampanga native.

“He doesn't look that athletic but he is very deceiving. Hindi mo alam kung ano ang gagawin niya. He has very good basketball IQ and he knows when to attack,” said the retired pro turned front office man. “Ang efficiency (rating) niya, mataas.”

Duremdes' words were prescient. Entering the final period the Royals were protecting a nine-point lead against the Classic, who, with Paolo Hubalde in the line-up, can be a dangerous squad. How did Escoto kick off the scoring in the fourth? With an audacious turnaround jumper off the glass. Three plays later he would produce a lay-up, and two plays later, a parking lot triple. A second trey moments later meant Iloilo was up 66-49 midway through the period, and Valenzuela were toast. Escoto finished with 20 points, 12 in the last 10 minutes.

Homegrown Players

But naturally Iloilo have also roped in some homegrown players to build affinity with their fan base. Hiligaynon is always in the air in the Royals dressing room.

Aaron Jeruta, late of San Juan, brings championship experience to the roster. Jeruta, a former CEU Scorpion, is from Jaro in Iloilo City. The guard is norming 7.8 points a game this season.

There are at least eight other Ilonggos in the roster, namely Rhagnee Singco, Jessiry Pedrosa, Jason Li, Gerry Abadiano, Leo Guion, John Mahari, Jay Javelosa, and Andrei Pantin.

Mahari has been logging nine minutes a game and has been averaging a tad over five points.

Javelosa is the son of the team owner, but earns his place on merit. On Monday the former Blue Eagle scored eight points and hauled down 10 rebounds. The center has played in the U-16 national team that won a SEABA gold in 2011. His coach then: Olsen Racela.

Li is a tantalizing prospect. At around 6'5” the ex-Lyceum Pirate is a unicorn in a league of undersized players. Racela loves his boundless energy, and he got five second-quarter minutes on Monday, contributing a basket.

Iloilo are far from being one of the league's richest teams, so they must rely on their system, which Racela describes as being predicated on hard work and hustle.

“Offensively we are fast paced with emphasis on ball sharing and decision making. But our defense has been carrying us so far. What we lack in size we counter with activity and effort,” explained Racela.

According to Racela it's a big help that with so many players playing previously under him and Gonzales, adapting to the offensive and defensive plays has been mostly painless.

“The reason for our success is the relationships we have with players, and the way they work. They are really committed to improving their games,” adds Coach Nash.

Samboy's Departure

That system will be tested now that shooting forward Samboy de Leon has departed, apparently for the pros. The team management apparently knew from the beginning of the season that he might move up the food chain, so Iloilo was prepared for this.

Iloilo has momentum but coming up is the biggest game of the year: their first home game on September 19 against the Pasay Voyagers. The venue will be the friendly confines of the University of San Agustin Gym. The team hopes for a big Ilonggo crowd to cheer them on.

Gonzales will be back in the saddle. He served a two-game suspension for a bizarre incident in a recent game when he walked onto the court and bumped into a Manila player. Racela went 1-1 relieving him as the head coach.

Iloilo United Royals was cobbled together in a hurry, but this winning team just might be good for the long haul.

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