Austria confident San Miguel—with Fajardo in top shape—can reclaim old throne
Leo Austria admits to having a feeling of emptiness heading into his ninth year as coach of San Miguel Beer, as the past two seasons haven’t been that rewarding even though he knows that his Beermen have put their best foot forward each time.
“There are several factors which hurt our chances,” said Austria, who won titles in each of his first six seasons with San Miguel and came within a jewel short of a Grand Slam twice.
Those factors won’t matter this season.
“I feel that we are better prepared to go to battle this time, compared to the last two seasons because of the pandemic,” he said.
San Miguel will be chasing a title it held onto with vise-like tightness not too long ago, and he believes that the others in the 12-team field still see his Beermen as a dangerous threat to reclaim their throne.
“People look to us as favorites and for us, that’s a challenge,” he said. “But we welcome the challenge, because we’ve had a good training camp like we’ve never had before, so we were able to finally achieve that chemistry.”
They won’t want for challengers this conference: TNT is the defending champion of the Philippine Cup while Barangay Ginebra is coming off a championship in the Governors’ Cup and will be parading a healthier unit this season. But Austria ranks his crew among the top four, a list that includes the team he is especially keeping an eye on.
“Magnolia,” Austria said. “They’re a complete team.”
San Miguel won the Philippine Cup five straight seasons before relinquishing it in 2020 in the Angeles bubble. And last season, San Miguel didn’t make it back to the Finals.
‘I’ll bounce back’
Austria believes that there is one big—a massive, 6-foot-10—reason why this Philippine Cup will be different from the last two and could look strikingly similar to the previous five.
“He told me: ‘babawi ako, coach’ (I’ll bounce back),” Austria said, referring to a conversation he had with June Mar Fajardo during camp as they talked about the tournament that unfurls on Sunday to officially take the lid off of the PBA’s 47th Season at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
“That [conversation with Fajardo] just gives me a lot of confidence,” Austria said. “And I saw it in him that he is in far better shape than he was last season when he returned from an injury. He is working very hard.”
Fajardo also won the Most Valuable Player award six straight seasons before that nasty shin injury kept him out from competing for a seventh.
“Also, his focus is there already, unlike last season when something about his recovery [from the shin injury] messed up his confidence and after that, he lost his mom.”
Does he still have the league’s most dominant player coming into the season?
“If we surround him with the right players, yes,” he said. “And that’s our job in the coaching staff.”
They’ve done a good job so far, stacking the roster up and down with talents who are coming together at the right time.
“We’re just trying to learn how to trust each other, learn to pass the ball to each other,” veteran guard Chris Ross said during the league’s Media Day at Novotel in Cubao, Quezon City. “It’s been pretty good lately. After we lost the last conference, we took a week off and then went back to practice. We’ve had a lot of time to really practice together.”
Not defending a title again could take some pressure off Austria and his charges starting Sunday, but the target has remained the same since he started calling the shots.
“The target is always to win a championship,” Austria said with a smile. “And this team knows how to win.”
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