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How Jeff Napa made no-nonsense NU Bulldogs in his own image

Under Jeff Napa, the NU Bulldogs have emerged as a grounded outfit -- never getting overly carried away in victory nor excessively deflated in defeat. UAAP Media Bureau

Usually, NU Bulldogs head coach Jeff Napa is an amiable conversationalist who's never too high nor too low when talking to reporters. He smiles. He kids. Whether it be a win or a loss. But this time, their shock loss to erstwhile bottom-feeding FEU Tamaraws was no laughing matter.

Napa got right into the meat of it post-game, lamenting NU's 24 errors, most of them unforced. In the end, though, it was he himself who took the blame. Point no fingers at his players, even as every single one of them failed to breach double-digit scoring.

"It's my fault. Give credit to FEU. We bled talaga para sa mga gusto naming mangyari," he remarked. "A loss is a loss. It's my fault. At least, coming into the second round, gagawan namin ng paraan."

In the next days, the Bulldogs went right back to work. They were never too high despite a 5-1 start to UAAP Season 85, which included a triumph over defending champion UP Fighting Maroons. They weren't going to be too low now despite a sorry defeat that set them up for a daunting back-to-back against the UP Fighting Maroons and the Ateneo Blue Eagles to start the second round.

Keep working. Keep playing. Stay in the game. Stay on the mission.

NU may very well be 5-4, all of a sudden, after their first two games in Round 2, but that won't make them any less of a contender. If that happens, they'll bounce back.

They already did so after losing two thought-to-be pillars from last season in Janjan Felicilda and Reyland Torres who transferred to State U. They already did so after bowing to the Blue Eagles by 17 points, and then going on a four-game winning streak.

The Bulldogs will bounce back because they're tough. Don't believe it? Then hear those words spoken by Ateneo's multi-titled mentor himself.

"These coaches in the UAAP are tough guys, and I think Jeff might be the toughest of all of us. And his team is a reflection of him," detailed Tab Baldwin. "NU is a physical, tough team, and they do exactly what Jeff wants. They're not gonna be easy for anybody this season."

Napa is a proud Nationalian through and through. Playing for the Bulldogs in the early 2000s, he once score 43 points, built on ten triples, in one game. Known then as a 3-and-D wing long before that term became en vogue, he was a team player -- and in turn, now asks his players to do anything and everything for the team.

After not pushing through with a professional career, he came back to his alma mater, and rebuilt NU's high school program into a powerhouse. He won three championships in the juniors division, and can claim credit for the careers of Hubert Cani, Mark Dyke, Justine Baltazar, and John Lloyd Clemente, among others. He won't, but he can.

Napa's first shot at the seniors level didn't turn out too well, though, as he missed the playoffs in his first two years as shot-caller for the Letran Knights before falling short of the finals in his third season. He was let go at that point, and right after he was replaced by Bonnie Tan, well, the Knights won it all.

It won't be wrong to acknowledge Tan as the coach who had the key to unlock Letran's championship form.

However, it also shouldn't be forgotten that Napa had a huge hand in building that title team. He polished Larry Muyang and Jeo Ambohot into standout bigs. He paved the path back to the Philippines for Finals MVP Fran Yu. He reminded the Knights who they were all along: tough, and intimidating when they're the ones who were supposed to be intimidated.

Now he's gotten his second chance -- in his alma mater, no less -- he's adamant to make things right, in his own way. This was his destiny, after all. That head coaching chair was always meant for a proud Nationalian. Who better than somebody who wore the blue and gold, had already coached the blue and gold, and would remain in blue and gold no matter what.

Because of Napa, the Bulldogs believe they can win games even when they're at the lighter end of the scale. Carl Tamayo, Zavier Lucero, and Terrence Fortea didn't faze them. Neither did Mike Phillips, Kevin Quiambao, and Schonny Winston move them. Most definitely, they'll try again against Ange Kouame, Dave Ildefonso, and Forthsky Padrigao.

The point being, NU will keep coming. All because their mentor has turned their engine on, and is keeping his foot on the pedal to keep them moving forward.

"If we want to climb up to the peak, kung gusto nga nilang maging big-time players, they have to commit na maging two-way players," he stated. "Kung hindi sila magiging two-way players, it'll be hard for us to be recognized as one of the big boys. Yun ang challenge ko sa kanila so come the second round, we have to be ready."

No Bulldog is in the top three of any major statistic -- save for third-best blocker Omar John. Their best scorer is Clemente at the 15th-20th range. Their best rebounder is John (7th). Their best playmaker and pilferer is Kean Baclaan (7th and fifth, respectively).

NU does anything and everything by committee. Their wins are team wins. Each and every one in their 15-strong lineup has a chance to contribute -- because their coach himself is telling them, and continues to tell them, that they can.

"I always tell them, 'We're not strong individually, but we're strong enough if we play as a group,'" he shared. "Nandyan yung talent nila, but yungtalent, pag pinagsama-sama, mas malaking bagay. Doon lilitaw yung (15)-man strong talaga."

NU doesn't have a superstar. The Bulldogs may very well be missing a star per se, with apologies to Clemente, Baclaan, Jake Figueroa, and Steve Nash Enriquez. Still, they shine bright -- as a team. They're the "NU-nonsense Bulldogs."

It was a tough loss, for sure. Good thing for them then that they and their coach are, without a doubt, tougher.