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Mapua Cardinals: From Cellar Dwellers to Record Breakers.

MANILA, PHILIPPINES --- Mapua University Cardinals registered a historic run in the 99th Season of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the revered institution will be entering the Final Four as the top seed for the first time in its history.

Seizing the coveted top seed, Mapua is poised for a highly anticipated face-off at 1:30 p.m., as they set their sights on defeating last year's runner-up, led by former Red Robin Will Gozum’s Benilde Blazers.

"Nag-start lahat sa training, kasi sa training ang pinaka-importante sa lahat is yung competitiveness namin, walang nagbibigayan na pinapahirapan namin yung isat isa, so malaking tulong yon sa team namin. Talagang nakilala namin yung isat isa" shared by Bonifacio.

Despite relatively modest expectations for the season, even with the eagerly awaited return of standout guard Clint Escamis, the Cardinals have defied all predictions. Surpassing initial projections, Mapua boasts an impressive 15-3 record, securing the pinnacle position in the standings.

The Heartbreak of 98

The echoes of Mapua's return to the finals resonated powerfully after 27 years in Season 97, where they triumphed over the Red Lions in the semifinals. However, Season 98 proved to be a contrasting narrative, with the Cardinals facing a disappointing turn of events as they fell short of the Final Four, concluding the elimination round with a 7-11 record.

Launching into Season 98 with high hopes, the Cardinals secured an initial win against their Final Four rival San Beda. Picking up where it left off last season, the Cardinals maintained their mastery over San Beda University, clinching a solid 66-55 victory.

Unfortunately, the game's positive start was marred by a nullification due to an incident involving a former St. Clare player.

The Cardinals' fate went downwards from there finishing the first round of the eliminations with a 1-8 record, losing 8 straight, including the disqualification against San Beda, before ending their demise with a win at the expense of the Host EAC Generals.

The Cardinals were able to use the win to fuel their second-round campaign with a 6-3 record, however, the early struggles of the Cardinals proved to be costly as the team failed to return to the Final Four. With the looming return of former Red Robin Standout Clint Escamis, the hopes for Season 99 are glaring for the Intramuros-based squad.

Coming Home to the Nest

"Buong year ko pinaghandaan to!" according to Escamis.

Against prevailing skepticism that had seemingly counted the Cardinals out of contention for the season, the team, propelled by the much-anticipated return of star guard Clint Escamis, defied expectations and soared to remarkable heights.

"Ina-out nila kaming lahat, wala kami sa Final Four (predictions)" Escamis shared in an exclusive interview with Radio Cardinal. "The moment we started practice in the offseason, sa grupo namin, kami lang yung naniniwala, yun mga coaches, mga teammates namin, kami lang may alam na makakarating kami rito and hindi pa kami tapos." Escamis exclaimed.

Proving the doubters wrong, the former Red Robin alum led the resurgence of Mapua with a 15-3 record, clinching the top spot in the standings, which serves as a testament to their resilience and determination.

"Sobrang sarap sa pakiramdam, na kahit na umalis na ako, they gave me a chance ulit. I’m thankful na halfway done na yung pangakong promise kila coach Randy na magchampion and bonus na lang din yung number 1 seed"

Escamis' performance this season also put every team on notice as the Rookie guard is favored to be this season's MVP. If crowned, Escamis will be the first rookie MVP of the NCAA since Rhenz Abando achieved the feat back in his lone season in S97, leading Letran to the Championship.

"Buong year ko pinaghandaan to, hindi lang ako yung team din. Gigil kami syempre yung outcome last season. Hindi man lang pumasok (sa Final Four) last season, yun yung naging motivation namin and especially yung 32 years na di pa nagchachampion yung Mapua" Escamis shared.

Boasting notable averages of 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 3.7 steals, the transferee has emerged as the undeniable heartbeat of the Cardinals, making a significant impact on both ends of the court throughout the year. Collaborating with his high school teammates, including Warren Bonifacio and Paolo Hernandez, he has played a pivotal role in fueling Mapua's impressive run.

Three Decades in the Making

With a community expecting only excellence and getting spoiled with alumni in the names of Atoy Co, Alvin Patrimonio, Freddy Hubalde, Leo Isaac, and Chito Victolero (to name a few). The Mapuan Community known for its performance in the Academe is also holding its athletics department to the same standard.

"Pinakaimportante sa mapua is yung maibalik naming yung korona kasi 32 years na yung hindi nagchachampion sa seniors, yung experience na nakuha namin sa juniors, nakapagfinals and champion kami, malaking tulong yon na nakaexperience kami ng championship, kasama sila Escamis at sila Paolo (Hernandez)" team captain Warren Bonifacio pointed.

Randy Alcantara, the current coach of the Cardinals who is also a part of the 1991 championship team with Cardinals legend Benny Cheng played a crucial role in securing that year's championship, contributing to the school's achievement of back-to-back crowns, a remarkable feat that followed their triumph in the previous edition as well.

With the marriage of the old and the new, will this be the year the Cardinals finally be able to water the drought and bring the crown back home to Muralla?

"Marami pang factor naman ang nakikita ko kasi nung time naman na ‘yun konti lang ‘yung malalaki, ang malaki lang namin ay si Benny Cheng eh. Ngayon, maliliit kami sa lineup sa NCAA pero malaki ‘yung puso namin," Alcantara said "Na-witness ko ‘yun eh, kung gaano kalaki ‘yung puso ni Benny Cheng para i-lead ‘yung championship nung 1991. Ngayon naman, lahat naman ng players sa team namin ay best effort talaga at may puso to win every game." he added.

Winning Traditions

This will not be the first time that the duo of Randy Alcantara and Yong Garcia will coach a team led by Warren Bonifacio, Paolo Hernandez, and Clint Escamis to bring them to the promised land. The gang was able to secure 2 championships back at the Juniors Division of the NCAA.

"We had this talk with Warren Bonifacio, sarap siguro nung pakiramdam na both Juniors and Collegiate level nagchampion kami. Once in a lifetime lang yun, hindi yun ginagawa ng regular na tao. It takes will, passion, and sacrifice talaga" according to Clint.

The storyline for this run couldn't be more polar opposite as the team will face another former Red Robin and former NCAA MVP in Will Gozum.

Gozum, who entered the season with high expectations as a powerhouse forward, has unfortunately not been able to mirror the stellar MVP performance of the previous year. His current stats reflect a more modest 12.7-point average, shooting at 44 percent, and securing 6.4 boards – a notable decline from his nearly double-double achievements, boasting 16.8 points, a solid 53 percent shooting record, and 9.7 boards in the previous season.

The help of one of the best shooters in the collegiate ranks in Mark Cuenco, and the rise of other key players, namely Jopet Soriano and JC Recto, has been a significant factor, with these three individuals proving invaluable. The gang hopes that the construction of this roster is enough to recapture the magic of their Juniors run.

"Malaking tulong yung nakasama ko sa Red Robins na magkakilala na kami since high school, hindi na kami magkakapaan. Alam na naming yung gagawin ng isat isa, then, yung mga bagong dating samin, yung mga rookies na galing ibang school na recruit ay nakapag adjust naman na rin sila at nakasabay na rin sila sa sistemang gusto ng coaches" Bonifacio exclaimed.

Curtain Call of a Hero

Whatever happens this season, the long-time captain of Mapua will be bidding his final farewell as the Senior from San Fernando, who has been a consistent presence since his Red Robin days has been drafted by the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok in the 2023 PBA Draft.

The soft-spoken forward is hoping to end his collegiate career on a high before finally moving on to the next rank of Basketball.


This season has been hard, battles have been won, but, the road only gets harder from here.


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