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Casting A Wider Recruitment Net

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Over the last month and a half cyberspace was abuzz with all manner of chatter regarding the destinations of the top high school basketball prospects in the country. A lot of the buzz had it that most of the best players of High School Class 2014 would be heading over to Loyola Heights, home of the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

True enough the most-sought after players did indeed confirm their commitment to the Blue Eagles in just the last week and a half. It was anticlimactic really, with these players already more or less set to go to the Ateneo.

But what truly grabbed my attention was not that these guys were all going to the top college basketball program in the country. Heck, if I was a high school player where else would I want to go if not the top team?

What grabbed my attention was that this sounded all too familiar. It was not even that far back, historically speaking. In 2003 the Ateneo went on a recruiting binge that saw them practically recruit en masse the starting five of the powerhouse San Beda Red Cubs that year. 6'5" center Ford Arao was literally the centerpiece of that haul, together with pointguard Yuri Escueta, forward-center Michael "Batas" Baldos, guard Jeff De Guzman, and swingman Arvie Braganza. Braganza eventually played for the University of the Philippines along with forward Jay Agbayani. Another big-name rookie recruit for that year is multimedia darling Chris Tiu out of Xavier School.

Now let us talk about the guys they did not get. 5'9" guard JV Casio was part of the Red Cubs squad, and he matriculated at Ateneo's archrival De La Salle. Casio would go on to win a couple of UAAP titles, represent the country in Smart Gilas, and is now a bona fide PBA star, towing his Alaska Aces with the last berth into the PBA Philippine Cup Quarterfinals.

Although he was not a part of this high school class, the Ateneo also did not get 5'11" swingman Joseph Yeo, Tiu's teammate at Xavier. Yeo and Casio would form one of the best backcourts ever in the UAAP on those multi-titled La Salle teams.

Turns out that Tiu would be the only one from that heralded 2003 recruiting class that would win a UAAP title with the Blue Eagles; he was the Captain of the 2008 title team that started a five-year championship dynasty for the Ateneo.

Speaking of 2008, that was yet another special rookie haul for the Blue Eagles. Swingman Ryan Buenafe (rookie of the year, Finals MVP), forward Nico Salva (two-time Finals MVP), center Justin Chua and American forward-center Vince Burke were lucky charms of a sort for the Ateneo. Their rookie class saw the Ateneo go on that historic 5-Peat dynasty. Salva, Chua and 5'10" guard Tonino Gonzaga would go on to become the only UAAP players to win championships in every year they were in the league.

In terms of return-on-investment that 2008 rookie class's cup doth runneth over. However, that has led to some confusion / misconceptions. For all of the contributions of that 2008 Class, they were not the real or even primary reason the Ateneo was able to complete a 5-Peat. In four of their five titles the Ateneo leaned on imposing big men who were already battle-tested veterans. 6'7" center Rabeh Al-Hussaini (2008 MVP) and 6'5" power forward Nonoy Baclao (2008 best defensive player) were so clearly superior to the rest of the field in both title years in 2008 and 2009.

Then the Ateneo recruited (literally) the biggest prize of all in 7-foot center Greg Slaughter, a man who had already won a 3-peat himself in the CESAFI, was a member of the Smart Gilas national team, and was (again literally) head and shoulders above the competition in the 2011 and 2012 title years.

In 2010 the Ateneo may not have been as talented but they were still pretty big, with Chua, 6'5" banger Frank Golla, and 6'7" Poy Erram taking turns up front. Some might say Buenafe was the guy who singlehandedly delivered the title to the Ateneo in that year, with that now-legendary three-pointer in Karl Cruz's face in Game 2. But to be honest, Buenafe was in the worst shape of his life that year, and was constantly getting earfuls from the coaches because guys were just blowing by him. He had that one great game and it so happened to be Game 2 of the Finals versus FEU.

Now the Ateneo has gone back to that "tried and tested" method of wholesale recruitment of the best high school talent out there. To be sure 6'4" San Beda superstar Arvin Tolentino, 6'2" Ateneo superstar Thirdy Ravena, Hope Christian stars 6'1" Clint Dolinguez and 6'3" John Apacible, and 6'4" Jay Javelosa of Reedley International by way of the Ateneo, certainly are the cream of this year's crop. They really and truly are the best high school players in the country today. They may eventually be joined by 6'6" Xavier School center Isaac Go, and 5'7" NU star pointguard Hubert Cani. If that isn't a star-studded recruiting class I don't know what is.

Again, let us take a look at the guys the Ateneo missed out on: 6'9" Aaron Rodenas, who was initially interested in Arellano University, 6'7" Brandon Rosser (younger brother of Matt Ganuelas of Smart Sinag and NLEX), and 6'3" stud swingman Jordan Heading, who was already a member of Olsen Racela's RP Youth Team a hear and a half back. Rosser is now a freshman in a JUCO (junior college) in Arizona. Heading has committed to US NCAA Division II school Cal Baptist. I don't even know where Rodenas is. All of these guys are Filipino expatriates.

The Pinoy expats would have needed to sit a year. But surely a 6'9" center like Rodenas who constantly played against guys his size and strength, or better, would logically be a much better player than a guy like Apacible, who plays the same position but is six inches shorter. Of course bringing Rodenas over here from Virginia would have been a more difficult proposition than recruiting Apacible. But then again another native Virginian named Greg Slaughter found his way to these Islands, so why not Rodenas?

Only time will tell how good the 2014 recruiting class of the Ateneo is. But casting a wider recruitment net is a must for any program now, not just the Ateneo. There are only so many college-caliber high school players available every year. Looking overseas should become a part of the recruitment strategy.
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  1. kulaspiro's Avatar
    A slight correction: Both Mike Baldos and Yuri Escueta were on the 2008 champion team with Chris Tiu.

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