Life as it happens. Time as it passes.

NO BONFIRE YET: The Maroons and Their Fight Against Mediocrity

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Last year, the UP Fighting Maroons lit up a bonfire at the Sunken Garden in celebration of their first win of the season, courtesy of the Adamson Falcons.

That was also their last win of the season.

Yesterday, the Maroons won their second game of the season, their first 2-0 record since ’05, their first back-to-back win since ’06, and their first win against La Salle since ’09.

So far, no one’s even lighting a match stick.

Which is GOOD, actually!

If the UP Fighting Maroons, and the community of their supporters, want to write their own history this season 78 of the UAAP, they will have to contend with something greater than the seven other schools of the league.

The culture of mediocrity.

Having lost all but four games in as many previous seasons, the Maroons have come to a point where a lone win for the season was so big a deal, it deserved a bonfire celebration. Not that the intentions behind the celebrations were wrong, but consider the fact that it was sending the wrong message–that it was okay to manage to get a single win against 13 losses, because for such an unfortunate bunch that has had to endure numerous winless seasons, avoiding a zero-fourteen record was quite an achievement already. Thus the impression that the goal wasn’t to win the entire season, but to simply win one for the entire season.

And why would not the Maroons’ followers settle for a lone victory? There was a season when the UP MBT flaunted the most intact, most veteran, and most polished line up in years. During that season, they have reached the three-year maturity period of the system their coach had set up and promised to finally deliver a Final Four appearance, the first since 1997. They even had the chance to train in the States that time. But even with all of that, not to mention the enormous support the team got from many sponsors as well, the Maroons kept on losing, fired their coach in the middle of the eliminations, brought in a champion coach from the pros, but still ended up unable to salvage the season, and eventually earning another winless season.

Questions popped up like mushrooms on a wet driftwood: What happened? Whose fault is it? Was it right to kick the coach out of the team? Does UP need a benefactor who will finance the rebuilding of the team? Did UP get jinxed?

Obviously these questions have no clear answers.

Out of nowhere a mindset sprang forth. It was then cultivated by the myriad of posts, comments, opinions (mine included) and articles written about that painful season. It didn’t take long before that mindset found its form in this statement…

“Manalo lang ang UP kahit isa, ok na!”

Well, there was really nothing wrong with wanting to win one game. But there’s something seriously wrong with wanting them to win JUST one game.

Whether some (not all, and surely not many) of UP’s followers are willing to admit the existence of this mindset or not, it is true. And the players themselves have voiced out their take about it.

“No, I am not ok with losing,” said new recruit Noah Webb. “When I came to UP, I heard people tell me ‘So you’re ok with losing?’ And I said ‘No, I am not ok with losing.'”

Team captain JR Gallarza also talked about their battle against mediocrity. “This season, we can’t just settle for one win and say ‘okay na yan, nakaisa na tayo.'” He also said that any plans of a bonfire will have to wait for when UP ultimately achieves their goal this season.

The goal? A final four appearance.

Now, hold your guns before you start shooting at new head coach Rensy Bajar for concocting the idea. It’s his own way of battling mediocrity.

“We have to believe that we can win. For years, guys have been entertaining the idea that one win is enough. That’s the culture we are trying to cure.

“I keep telling the guys that they must believe they can win. We keep on telling them that they can.”

So far, they have believed. And so far, they have won.

After defeating the UE Red Warriors on opening day 62-55, the Maroons pulled off a convincing 71-66 win over the DLSU Green Archers. For the first time in a decade, the Maroons have a spot on top of the standings with a 2-0 record, and for the first time in nine years, they won a back-to-back game.

And as of this writing, not a single firewood is being lit to start any small semblance of a bonfire to celebrate where UP is right now.

“We are hungry for more wins,” says the prodigal Maroon Jett Manuel, who led the charge in their recent vanquishing of the Taft-based ballers. “We are on a high right now, but we want more.”

For a team who’s been starving for a winning season, they will surely want more.

The closest they ever got to Final Four was in 2004 when they had a 7-7 record. That by far is UP’s best record of the elimination rounds in the last 18 years.

Right now, they have taken two games closer to their goal of taking a top four spot.

“That’s the ultimate goal right now… To have a spot in the final four this season,” according to Paul Desiderio, who is bringing with him his experience in the RP Youth Squad, along with Diego Dario.

Ten months ago, the Maroons were treated as bonus games for the other teams.

This time around, they are treated as threats.

The road to redemption is not easy, but it is not impossible either. The NU Bulldogs proved this last season when they won their first championship since half a century ago. And the guy at the helm of the Bulldogs is a Maroon himself, Eric Altamirano, who was part of the last UP Champion team of ’86, and the mentor of the UP squad that barged into the Final Four the last time in 1997. I’m sure looking from his vantage point as an opponent, he knows the boys from his alma mater are the hungriest in the league right now.

On Saturday, the Maroons will take on the UST Growling Tigers, who like them is on the top spot with a 2-0 record. The Espana ballers handed the heavily favored FEU Tamaraws their first defeat, 72-71. Once again the odds are seen to be against the Maroons on this game. The triumverate of Ed Daquioag, Kevin Ferrer and Karim Abdul are as dangerous a threat as one will ever encounter. By the end of their match, one team will emerge on top, while the other will be on the second spot.

By now you must be hearing statements like “O naka-dalawa na ang UP! For sure matatalo na yan sa USTe!” Or “Pag natalo UP sa Sabado, back to reality na tayo, guys.”

The coaching staff and players of the UP Fighting Maroons will not have any of those kind of banters. Their mind is set on one thing–nothing less than a win. And for the Maroons to keep on winning against their opponents, they will have to first defeat their own sense of mediocrity about themselves. Because a true giant slayer would never say “They’re too big to hit.” but rather “They’re too big to miss!”

If all things go well, UP will find its way back to the top half of the standings after 18 years, and a second championship after 29 years.

Until then, the bonfire will have to wait.

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