IT TOOK a little man from Quezon town for the mountainous province of Bukidnon to strip Cagayan de Oro of the undisputed title as king of junior basketball in Northern Mindanao.
Considered as the City of Gold’s exclusive domain for many decades already, the basketball reign for secondary level would eventually go to the landlocked province of Bukidnon through the herculean fate of coach Raymon Mercader and the mighty dribblers from Infant Jesus School of Bukidnon (IJSB) in Valencia City.
It started late in 2019 when the IJSB Wild Cats sent a shockwave across the region by winning in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte the secondary crown of the Northern Mindanao Regional Athletic Association (NMRAA) Meet-Palarong Pampook that had long been dominated by Cagayan de Oro cagers since time immemorial.
They quickly followed it by ruling for the second straight year the regional Prisaa (Private Schools Athletic Association) held at Liceo de Cagayan University gym in Cagayan de Oro before jumpstarting 2020 by capturing the regional championship of the National Basketball Training Center (NBTC) League in Surigao City.
Claiming all the marbles, specifically the three major junior basketball championships of the year in Northern Mindanao, is simply an act that is hard to follow.
“Better credit it all to my warriors or army of players who played very hard and gave their extra efforts to win all our games up to the championships,” said the 39-year-old Mercader, born at the old Northern Mindanao Provincial Hospital in Cagayan de Oro and raised in the municipality of Quezon, Bukidnon.
“And I’m proud and happy that they become well-disciplined athletes on and off the courts,” added Mercader, now on his 16th year coaching career after a long time when he inherited the starting pointguard position from the equally-small Cyrus Diango at the Cagayan de Oro College (COC) Senior Varsity Scorpions despite a disadvantageous 5-foot-6 in height that personally earned for him then “The Flash” moniker.
Mercader’s prize catch talents are Kent Ivan Alindao, Christian Jay Arivas, Jeremy Cañizares, Dwyn Lloyd Dacutanan, Renz Bryon Dacutanan, Ryan Rey Palutao, Vince Aljem Perez, Kent Ivo Salarda, Rikki Venz Angelu Tan, Laven Lloyd Uy, John Andrew Yamon, Bryan Jules Descaya and Dave Quidato with Adriano Bacacao Jr. as assistant coach.
On their way up to crowning glory, the Wild Cats were hardly challenged in repeating over the Prisaa take, cruising past Sacred Heart by more than 20 points in the semifinals en route to an easy win over host Liceo Junior Titans in the final.
Their strength were put to real test by COAA’s Merry Child School of Barangay Bulua whom they beat by only two points before dusting off Misamis Oriental General Comprehensive High School (MOGCHS) by over 20 during the NMRAA championship duel.
In the NBTC Regional Finals on January 30 to February 2, Bukidnon’s Infant Jesus crushed Bayugan, 112-67; Bislig, 75-44 and Butuan, 88-66 in succession before overcoming the fightingest Assumption Montessori School (AMS) Jaguars in a thrilling 80-79 finale.
Mercader cited defense specialist Perez from Kibawe, actually a two-way player who consistently backed Salarda in the scoring department, among his go to guys in the company of fellow big men Uy, Palutao and the streak-shooting Dacutanan siblings.
“Since the start of NMRAA Meet and even Prisaa ang Cagayan de Oro gyod ga-dominate. It’s the first time in many years that we heard nga napa-ingon sa Bukidnon ang korona,” local hoop followers would now say in unison.
For the relatively small and rarely-heard Infant Jesus School of Bukidnon with only 300 plus students in population, such an accomplishment is a big deal. And Mercader attributed it to collective efforts in a three-year program preparation that includes producing top-notch swimmers and taekwondo jins for the school.
Known as strict disciplinarian, Mercader admits he owes the trait to his former COC coach Felixberto “Bonggabs” Gabales, who’s now with the South Western Cobras in Cebu City.
“Grabe si coach (Bonggabs) sa una. Mapasa gyod sa player.”
Mercader also acknowledged COC’s coaching staff Didong Gamayon as “my first mentor” and Luis Jose Gonzales, formerly with La Salle and now with JRU Heavy Bombers, as “my present mentor in the Philippines”.
Also, CEO Dr. Mindaugas Balciunas from the International Basketball University based in Lithuania, Europe and all the Lithuanian Basketball Coaches Association “for helping to level up and upgrade my coaching skills that led to those 3 regional championship wins”.
Literally breaking sweat, blood and tears, Mercader said success could not be simply attained – overnight.
“Kung magpugas lang ‘ta naa gyoy anihon. It’s just a matter of preparation, techniques, tactics and prayers, system, sacrifice, commitment and dedication, hardwork, will to win, teamwork and trust with each other. Of course, composure during the games, and most of all, self discipline and our pressure one-on-one defense as our main weapon,” enumerated Northern Mindanao’s virtual Coach of the Year.
And he’s not truant in recognizing the “helping hands” around his team’s development.
“We have a lot to thank for, most especially to our Almighty God. The Infant Jesus School admin and staffs for the support headed by Madam Laline and Boss Ben Ju Malayang. Our Super Fans, the IJSB parents, my wife Lorena and sons Carlo and Caleb Joshua for prayers and support.”
Mercader also expressed thanks to the City of Valencia headed by Mayor Azucena Huervas, Vice Mayor, Doc Paul Murillo, SB members and the City Sports Office under Wency Casilang, coach Rico, Atong Bedrejo and bus driver from LGU-Valencia.
He also mentioned the City of Surigao, officiating officials and to Pastoral Center for the team’s accomodation, the NBTC admin and staff headed by coaches Eric Altamirano and Alex Compton and NBTC Mindanao head Arvin Martinez and Carlos “Cap” Porticos for “the very heart warming support”.
Bashers may call him “extremely” strict as he is, but coach Mercader has no regrets.
“Through guiding them with an iron fist, the little-known Infant Jesus School of Bukidnon (IJSB) Wild Cats have quite become champions on and off the courts with character and attitude,” summed up Mercader.