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Cardinals emerge stronger together in NCAA 97

Article by: Alexandra Isabelle G. Delavin and Alyanna Ysabelle A. Faustino
Graphics by: Cassius Klai C. Francisco

In line with the theme, “Stronger Together, Buo ang Puso,” the Mapúa Cardinals seized the first runner-up title in the Men’s Basketball Tournament while the Mapúa Lady Cardinals were hailed as the Queens of Five-setters in the Women’s Volleyball Tournament after ending the elimination round in fifth place with their 5-4 win-loss stint, exemplifying the red and gold pride throughout their National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Season 97 run from March 26 to July 22, 2022.

With the recent change of adopting a single round-robin format and adjusting to the bubble set-up, both home teams faced each NCAA member school once in the elimination round, pushing them to give their all-or-nothing in each match.

Through the Hoops

As they returned to the court after a two-year layoff, Mapúa Cardinals Co-captain Enrico Joaquin Garcia shared how their team treated each game as a do-or-die match, “’Yong mindset namin is to bring back our team’s chemistry on and off the court kasi halos two years kaming ‘di nagsama,” Garcia stated.

“Our mindset talaga is to give our best effort every game – win or lose, dapat all out,” he added.

Carrying on this mindset, the red and gold team kicked the season off with a 3-0 run start in the elimination rounds, but momentarily faltered after two consecutive losses against the Arellano University (AU) Chiefs and defending champions Colegio de San Juan de Letran (CSJL) Knights. This hiccup then pushed the Cards to practice harder and execute extra shooting drills during training. Eventually, this paid off as not only did they get back on the winning track, but they had also set the record for the highest number of three-pointers throughout the season after 16 successful treys in their match against the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA Altas.

When asked about the highlight of their journey, the 5-foot-10 point guard recalled their semi-finals match against the San Beda University (SBU) Red Lions. Despite knowing that SBU was highly expected to appear in the Finals, the home team’s determination ended their 27-year finals appearance drought and SBU’s 14 back-to-back finals appearances. Following this, the Mapúa ballers fought their way to sweep the court in their favor but fell short against the Knights in the best-of-three finals. Nonetheless, the Cards etched their mark as one of the teams to watch out for in the upcoming season.

Aside from being the 1st Runner-Up, Cards’ Shooting Guard Paolo Hernandez was awarded as the Most Improved Player after his statistical point ranking jumped from Rank 35 (Season 95) to Rank 9 at the end of the season.

Down the Line

The return of the NCAA saw a new and improved team of Lady Cardinals who were hungry to rewrite history for the red and gold squad. After a stretch of tough seasons, the Intramuros-based squad emerged to become the season’s Queen of Five Setters.

For Team Captain Jonina Fernandez, this moniker slowly reintroduced the team as a force to be reckoned with. “Dati yung team ng Mapúa wala naman masyado tinatawag samin or hindi pa ganun kilala, ngayon meron na so nakakatuwa talaga na nagstart ulit kami na magpakilala po kung ano yung team ng namin and inuunti-unti po namin ‘yon,” she shared.

With their eyes on the prize, the Lady Cardinals opened their title campaign with a loss to defending champions AU Lady Chiefs. However, the Lady Cards quickly regained momentum and bounced back, tallying three straight wins to improve to 3-1. This remarkable winning streak was cut short after losing to the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (CSB) Lady Blazers, SBU Lady Red Spikers, and CSJL Lady Knights. The red and gold team then crawled back from two sets down to deny the Emilio Aguinaldo College (EAC) Lady Generals in a five-set thriller, capping the season on a high note with the unique distinction of emerging victorious in all their four five-setters.

The Lady Cards also put forward Middle Blocker and Super Rookie Alyanna Nicole Ong who towered above the competition and was already known as among the best players in the league. With her prowess and consistency in attacks, blocks, and services, Ong was not only named the Best Player of the Game in four of the five wins but was also hailed as the 2nd Best Middle Blocker of the tournament.

Their stint in this season was deemed their best feat in recent years. According to Fernandez, their bubble training during the pandemic was well spent in building their connections on and off the court. “Lagi kaming excited mag-training kasi nandoon lang kami magkakasama and kino-consider namin ‘yung trainings na pinaka bonding namin, ‘di na namin naiisip yung pagod kasi nag eenjoy po kami,” the season’s Team Captain shared.

When asked about the legacy that Fernandez hopes to leave the team with, she remarked that this would be the good system that they started with during the pandemic “…because we can't deny that it was really a good start para umangat ‘yung team.” Fernandez is joined by holdovers Carla Gaudan, Wellamae Ortega, Allyana Cruz, and Leslie Bolandrina as graduating players.

After their exceptional performances, Mapúans can expect both teams to come back stronger in the next season. Meanwhile, Season 97 host school CSB passed on the hosting duties to EAC, eyeing to bring back the double round-robin format for the NCAA Season 98, which will commence on September 10, Saturday, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
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