Defending champion Letran College braces for a tough challenge from a balanced and highly competitive field as it shoots for a historic four-peat in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Season 99 seniors basketball competition.
New Knights head coach Rensy Bajar acknowledges the big challenge they have to face keeping the title in Intramuros and achieving a feat the school failed to complete back in 1986.
“It will be an exciting season and at the same time pressure for us being the defending champion and for me as a new coach,” Bajar said as he took over the coaching rein from successful mentor Bonnie Tan during the press launch of the season on Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“We will take it one game at a time. I’m sure all the teams are very strong and competitive. For me, our goal is to improve every game. Whoever we face we will treat them with respect.”
Letran opens its campaign on Sunday slated at 3 p.m. against season host Jose Rizal University at the MOA Arena.
However, the Knights will be playing sans the main heroes of their grand slam in already graduated veterans Louie Sangalang, Brent Paraiso, Fran Yu and Season 98 Finals Most Valuable Player King Caralipio.
“This year will be an even tougher season for us because we lost a lot of veteran players. But I’m sure our new guys will battle all the way because that’s the character of our team: To give a good fight every time,” Bajar said.
The Knights will now rely on remaining holdovers led by team captain Kurt Reyson, Kevin Santos and Pao Javillonar.
“It’s a big pressure for us. But as a team, we want to put that pressure off our minds. What we want to focus on is how to win especially since we lost a lot of players. Also, we have a new coach although he has been with us since 2019, there are some new things he inserted into our system. Then we also have young players in our team,” Reyson said.
Out to spoil Letran’s attempt to make history is last year’s runner-up College of Saint Benilde.
The Blazers, who gave the Knights a scare in the exciting finals series in December last year that went into full three games, are parading an intact lineup with reigning season MVP Will Gozum, Migz Oczon, Miguel Corteza, Mark Sangco and skipper Robi Nayve.
Still, Benilde mentor Charles Tiu believes it will be an open contest although Letran remains formidable despite losing familiar faces.
“We’ve been monitoring all the NCAA teams, everybody has improved. I think most of the core of all teams have been together for some time now. So I think it’s gonna be competitive. Last year we saw a lot of upsets and teams surprising one another. I think we will see more of the same this year,” he said.
“Obviously, the team to beat is still Letran. They have not lost the championship for the past three years so they’re still the favorites.”
The Blazers begin their quest to end a 23-year title drought also Sunday against Lyceum of the Philippines University.
The league will also welcome three other new mentors in Chico Manabat of Arellano University, Jerson Cabiltes of Emilio Aguinaldo College and San Sebastian College-Recoletos’ John Kallos.
Meanwhile, NCAA has included in its calendar of events the return of badminton, table tennis and in-person taekwondo and chess events. The league will also introduce grassroots programs kiddie badminton and 3×3 basketball.