All-Negrense Muscovados cherish MPBL debut: ‘Hindi malilimutan habang buhay’

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Before Negros Muscovados star guard Jafet Claridad exited the Mall of Asia Arena on Monday one last time, he made sure to take a photo with the Chooks-to-Go in-arena setup as his backdrop.

The Muscovados had just concluded their stint in the Chooks-to-Go MPBL Invitational powered by TM on December 19, finishing with a 0-5 record in Group A, and were scheduled to take a 1 a.m. flight back to Negros Occidental via Bacolod City in a few hours.

Playing in an elite level league as organized as the on-going tournament is such a privilege for the squad made up of all-Negrense homegrowns, that even the little things like being able to play in a state-of-the-art venue and having games streamed online are already monumental.

“Noong first game namin, nanibago talaga lahat dahil ‘yung court, aircon. Sa amin, hindi eh, mainit. Noong pagpasok, ang lamig talaga, parang hindi mo ma-feel ‘yung bola sa kamay,” Claridad shared after Negros absorbed an 85-73 setback at the hands of the powerhouse and undefeated Pasig-Sta. Lucia Realtors where he scored a team-high 17 points.

“Noong napawisan na kami, doon unti-unti namin na-feel ang court at ang paglaro sa kalaban. Ang laki din nag-adjust from first quarter hanggang sa dulo,” he recalled.

Even before tip-off of their final affair, Negros did not appear tense; they were just enjoying the warmup rounds and savoring the moment.

For the 26-year-old guard out of the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos, being able to play in the professional and mainstream stage is a moment he and the entire club will cherish forever.

“Para sa akin, isang malaking opportunity ito sa amin dahil nabigyan kami ng time para makapaglaro sa ganitong court at sa mga kalaban na malalakas,” he said. “Isang karangalan din na sila, nakalaban namin, at hindi na namin malilimutan ‘yun habang buhay.”

Interestingly, the newest MPBL team’s preparations for the Invitational started as early as April this year.

The team was composed mainly of locals from Negros island schools who play in local leagues like the Unigames, National Collegiate Championship regional qualifiers, and Panalay basketball which usually holds tours around the Visayas.

Due to the third wave of COVID-19 infections during that time, the Philippines was forced to impose lockdowns again in hotspots, including Metro Manila — and the Muscovados had to stop training for a month.

Finally, when the MPBL finally restarted with the FIBA-style tournament, Negros returned to work, keeping its roster intact before flying to Metro Manila.

Throughout their preparations, Muscovados head coach Rolando Aledron Jr. — also the UNOR tactician — had simple and modest expectations: compete with the best basketball players in the country while taking valuable experience for the mostly young players.

“Being the new team in the MPBL, we’re very happy with our performance. We had so many experiences na nakuha dito,” he said.

And Negros arguably exceeded their own goals. Out of their five group stage matches, the Muscovados lost three by only one point — 80-79 to the Caloocan Excellence, 87-86 to the Bacoor Strikers, and 68-67 to the All-Star Bacolod Ballers.

Two of those losses were even heartbreaking, as game-winners were sank by Pao Javillonar (Caloocan) and Jess Quilatan (Bacoor), both put-backs off teammates’ misses.

But even if the Muscovados weren’t able to register a game into their win column, realizations from those competitive matches will be vital when they get back to the drawing board in preparation for the preseason tournament tentatively set next February 2022.

“It’s very important. Mayroon ka pang another conference so at least, nakahanap kami ng experience. Pagbalik namin sa Negros, ang dami naming nakuhang experience at marami kaming uulitin sa mga laro namin. Nagpapasalamat talaga kami na marami kaming ma-improve,” Aledron said.

“Kahit puro homegrown lang ang mga player namin, we tried our best to be (competitive), kumbaga ang Negros, matira ‘yan pagdating sa basketball. ‘Yung mga player namin, puro bago ‘yan. Sa ganitong kalaking tournament, nakita namin na kulang lang kami ng exposure. Kulang lang kami ng exposure, at siguro ng malaki at ng point guard.”

For his part, Claridad had a productive campaign. The volume three-point shooter averaged 12.2 PPG (8.4 attempts from three/game), 4.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, and a league second-best 3.2 SPG. He shot a respectable 33.3 percent from deep.

As he and his teammates head home, they will do so with heads held high, knowing they’ve represented their home province well and have proven themselves in the big stage.

“Nakita na namin ‘yung mga lapses namin, mga kailangan i-improve at kailangan idagdag sa team, ‘yung mga dapat paghandaan at skills na kailangan i-improve dahil ‘yung mga kalaban namin ang taas na ng level ng laro kaysa sa amin,” Claridad said.

“Na-boost kami, hindi naman pala nagkakalayo, kailangan lang disiplina sa sarili, practice, mag triple-time, tapos mga plays sa loob ng court.”

Photos from Chooks-to-Go MPBL

Nguyễn J. Văn Linh (Levi Verora)