YEARS OF frustration finally came to end for the CafeFrance Bakers as they pocketed the 2015 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup last June. More than half a year later, the image of Rodrigue Ebondo hitting the championship-clinching basket remains fresh in the team’s collective memories.
Now, the Bakers of Coach Edgar Macaraya are now focused on becoming only the second team after the North Luzon Expressway Road Warriors to register the back-to-back championships. In the interim, the Bakers’ Centro Escolar University varsity players managed to annex the Fourth NCBL and 15th NAASCU cage crowns to add to their growing collection.
Winning has now become a good habit and this should be a warning to the opposition, not bad for a side that won a solitary game in the first ever D-League tournament in 2011. Ebondo, the 15th NAASCU MVP, will suit up anew as he is expected to carry the load on both ends of the floor.
This time, Ebondo will be surrounded by more of his CEU teammates in light of a new D-League rule that requires school-based squads to have at least nine varsity-eligible Filipinos in order to have one exchange student on the line-up. Even though their names were called in last year’s PBA Rookie Draft, 14th NAASCU MVP Samboy de Leon and Alvin Abundo will return as they have one more year of NAASCU eligibility left since they went unsigned.
The decorated trio will also have holdovers Aaron Jeruta and Joseph Celso to help out together with Jason Opiso who returns to the D-League after sitting out the last couple of tournaments. Making their debuts will be JK Casino, Joseph Manlangit, O’Neil Arim and Junior Scorpions standout Rich Guinitaran who turned 18 last December 28 and could easily be the youngest player in the tournament.
Taylor Statham, the Bakers’ first round and fourth overall pick in the recent Rookie Draft out of Cal State-San Bernardino, continues to be part on the team but his inclusion on the active list is dependent on submission of required documents by the PBA office. Statham is seen as a big help to Ebondo in manning the frontline.
While waiting for Statham, the team has also retained the services of big men Jam Cortes and Carl Bryan Cruz. Paul Zamar and Mar Villahermosa also were absorbed from sister team Euro-Med Laboratories that competed in the inaugural PCBL Founders Cup last year while the D-League went on an extended hiatus.
Cortes was a vital piece in CafeFrance’s Foundation Cup romp while Cruz sat out the tournament to nurse a knee injury sustained in the last Aspirants Cup playoffs. Zamar and Villahermosa have big backcourt shoes to fill after the promotion of Maverick Ahanmisi and Joseph Sedurifa to the PBA via Rain Or Shine and Meralco respectively.
Coming off a championship has greatly increased the individual stocks of the Bakers. Aside from Ahanmisi and Sedurifa, centers Michael Miranda and Yutien Andrada earned roster spots at Barako Bull.
Due to the increased requirement for CEU players, the team had to part ways with Eliud Poligrates, JM Noble and Bong Galanza. Meanwhile, CEU alumni Alfred Batino signed up with new team QRS JAM Liner-UP.
Coach Macaraya will be assisted on the bench by Yong Garcia, Oscar Torres, Jay Cambarihan, Timothy Taclas and Ernani Epondulan and trainers Philip Go, Rachel Santos and Alex Almonte. Team manager is Jefferson Plaza with Jun Tiongco as his assistant.
CafeFrance will play its first game on January 25 (Monday) against newcomer ZC Mindanao Aguilas at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City starting at 2:00 PM. It will be followed by Wang’s Basketball testing Phoenix Petroleum-FEU at the 4:00 PM.
The rest of the nine-team cast counts Caida Tiles, Tanduay Rhum, Banco de Oro-NU and AMA Online Education. Games will be played every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday with the San Juan Arena and Ynares Sports Arena alternating as venues.