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Aguilas to blaze grid trail for Team Phl

MANILA, Philippines – Move over, Azkals, Volcanoes and Gilas. There’s a new Philippine team on the sports block and they’re called the Aguilas, soon to compete in the Asian Federation of American Football (AFAF) Championships.

Bernardo (Dodi) Palma, who heads Arenaball Philippines (ABP), said yesterday the Aguilas will be formed this year to test their mettle against other AFAF member countries India, Israel, Korea, Japan and Thailand. The AFAF is affiliated with the 62-nation International Federation of American Football (IFAF) with K. K. Park as president and IFAF vice president.

“The ABP’s immediate goal is to gain recognition from the POC (Philippine Olympic Committee),” said Palma. “Mr. Park has given the ABP his support for IFAF and AFAF membership through the POC. We’ve already submitted all the requirements for POC accreditation and we’re looking forward to become a legitimate National Sports Association.”

Palma said the Aguilas will enter the AFAF Championships as the lowest-ranked squad. “But with the quality of our players, I think the Aguilas stand a very good chance against our Asian neighbors,” he said. “We believe that American football fits the Filipino sports culture. We love physical contact sports like basketball, mixed martial arts and boxing. American football has those qualities and a lot more. This is the only team sport that brings together all body types from a 140-pound running back to a 400-pound lineman. With the right sponsors and recognition, the ABP has a future with the masses. To promote the game, we intend for the Aguilas to compete in friendly games with our Asian counterparts so that the pride of the country is at stake.”

Without too much fanfare, the ABP opened its third season three weeks ago. There are eight playdates in the schedule culminating in the Arena Bowl on Sept. 15. Four teams are in contention, namely, the Bandits, Juggernauts, Rebels and Wolves. The two-time defending champion Bandits, composed mainly of flag football players, brought a winning streak of 16 games into the third season opener at the UP pitch last June 30 but lost to their archrival Juggernauts.

The ABP is the country’s first and only American tackle football league and was established in 2009 by Palma and Eduardo Yamsuan. The inaugural 2010 season featured four teams from Manila with 25 players on each roster. Now, a lineup consists of 35 to 45 players. A typical season starts with a double round-robin classification then two do-or-die playoff games and finally, the Arena Bowl. The ABP uses National Football League (NFL) rules but games are played on a smaller field of 40 by 100 yards with nine a side. The first two seasons calendared 32 games played mostly at the Marikina Sports Park, Ateneo and UP. Players are mostly Filipinos but there are Fil-foreigners and foreigners in the lineups. The ABP allows only up to four foreigners on the field at a time.

“We took the term Arenaball because football is known here as soccer,” said Palma. “Arena is the place where gladiators battle for honor and pride. We found Arenaball appropriate for the action that takes place in our games. Soccer is totally different from American football. Rugby may be similar in concept except that in American football, you have helmets and shoulder pads to protect players from hits. The main concept of American football is for a player with the ball to penetrate the endzone of the opposing team through a series of plays or what we call downs. A team is given four downs to reach 10 yards. If the team reaches 10 yards within four plays, they get another four series of downs to go 10 more yards until they reach the opposing endzone for a touchdown of six points. If the offensive team fails to reach 10 yards, then the ball is automatically turned over to the opposing team.”

Palma said even as the third season just got underway, the ABP is now laying out plans for the fourth edition. “We’re excited about our fourth season because we’ll be bringing in teams from Olongapo, Iloilo and Butuan,” said Palma. “We hope to go nationwide and we’re inviting AFAF teams to play friendlies in Manila to promote American football. We’re hoping to schedule international matches in November in Manila and Subic. We now have 150 active players and by next season, our target is to double that number with three more teams as we go the full 11 a side like in the NFL. Our players’ ages range from 18 to 44 and they’re students, yuppies, corporate executives and owners of companies. We are in talks with a Manila-based school on the possibility of using its unused field as a home pitch for American football. If that works out, it will mark the start of a school-based program. This season, our main venues are the UP pitch and Marikina Sports Park. With an expansion team from Olongapo, we will schedule games at Remy Field, Subic, where there is a big American community.”

Among the top ABP players are Bandits captain Will Yeh, Juggernauts captain Paul Reyes from the University of Southern California, Juggernauts running back Johnny Babaran of Mapua, Juggernauts wide receiver and professional model Wally de la Cruz and Rebels linebacker Derek Keenan from Washington State University. Yeh, 34, was the first season MVP while Reyes, 29, took the award in the second season. Babaran, 22, was Mr. Rush in the second season and completed three touchdowns with 40 run attempts for 432 yards. De la Cruz was Mr. Receiver in the second season with 13 receptions for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Keenan, 25, was the Defensive Player of the second season with 14 solo tackles, 15 assist tackles, four sacks and a safety.

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