San Beda mentor Boyet Fernandez thinks that defending NCAA champion Letran clearly has the tools to be a dominant team for the years to come after a recruiting binge that provided the Knights three highly touted players in the collegiate ranks.
Fernandez, whose Red Lions lost to the Knights in an exciting best-of-three showdown during the 95th NCAA Season, said Letran looks very much solid with the addition of Rhenz Abando, Brent Paraiso and Ian Bataller.
“If you look at the future malakas talaga,” Fernandez told Manila Bulletin in a phone interview Friday. “Although for this season solid na naman talaga ang Letran, malakas pa din sila.”
Letran no longer has Jerrick Baranza and Bonbon Batiller – two key players in the Knights’ title run last year – as well as backup center Christian Balagasay since all are now in the PBA.
The holdovers for Letran coach Bonnie Tan include Finals Most Valuable Player Fran Yu, Larry Muyang, Ato Ular and Jeo Ambohot, while the freshmen eligible for this year are Joseph Brutas, Kenny Rogers Rocacurva and Jay Pangalanan.
Abando, Paraiso and Bataller, who all came from University of Santo Tomas, still need to complete the one-year residency – or finish the two semesters of Letran – to be able to play in the NCAA.
The league eyes a March 2021 opening of Season 96, but if the vaccine against the coronavirus is not yet available – as NCAA Management Committee chairman Fr. Vic Calvo maintains a “no vaccine, no games” policy – it could be pushed to August next year.
Regardless of the opening date, Fernandez thinks Letran has what it takes to contend for a second straight title — something that the Mendiola-based squad will try to prevent.
“Of course gusto namin is maibalik sa San Beda ang NCAA championship,” said Fernandez. “Kam din naman nagpalakas after mawala ang ilang players namin kaya maganda tingin ko ang chance ng team.”
Despite losing Cameroonian players Donald Tankoua and Arnaud Noah, as well as Clint Doliguez and AC Soberano – both PBA players now – and Evan Nelle (now with De La Salle University), the Red Lions still boasts a strong lineup capable of winning back the title.
The team still got last season’s MVP Calvin Oftana and Filipino-Canadian guard James Kwekuteye-Canlas. Fernandez said they also elevated four mainstays from NCAA junior’s champion Red Cubs – Rhayyan Amsali, Yukien Andrada, Winston Ynot and Justin Sanchez.
Also, the team added JV Gallego and Brendon Ocampo, a 6-foot-1 product of Canada’s Durham Crossover Program, the same system that produced Canlas, who was part of the 2019 NCAA Mythical Five.
“Kami naman nagpalakas and nagpe-prepare din kami, with our online training bawal naman kasi now ang physical training and karamihan sa team nasa province,” said Fernandez.
“Pero hindi lang naman ang Letran ang tinitignan namin. May mga teams din na nagpalas, like Mapua, San Sebastian, Arellano and Lyceum. So hindi lang Letran ang kailangan na paghandaan.”
Fernandez said they are still waiting for the MANCOM decision with regards to practice sessions since the government – through CHED – already said that college teams would be allowed to train but with strict health protocols to make sure that there is no spread of COVID-19.
“Kami naman susunod lang kami sa kung anong sabihin ng MANCOM. Actually nagpaalam kami ng ‘bubble training’ sa campus, pero hindi kami napayagan last May so sunod kami,” he said.
“Kaya eto kung anong mangyayari next month kung mapayagan ba ang college teams na mag-training, we’ll see. Basta kami susunod sa decision ng NCAA kasi yun ang tamang gawin.”