NZ juniors eligible for SEA, Asian Games
Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - December 19, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Manila-born New Zealand junior stars Matt Lucente and Rafa Yam are eligible to play for the Philippines at the Southeast Asian (SEA) and Asian Games, said Squash Rackets Association of the Philippines (SRAP) president Bob Bachmann the other day as their country of residence isn’t a participant in either competition and they’re dual citizens.

Yam, 17, and Lucente, 15, are mainstays of the New Zealand junior squad. They migrated with their parents to New Zealand at an early age, live in the same Auckland neighborhood and study at Westlake Boys High School. They’ve won junior championships on the national and international levels as New Zealand players. Now, Yam and Lucente are eager to reap honors for the Philippines.

Last week, Yam and Lucente flew to Manila to participate in the SRAP National Open at the Makati Sports Club. There were over 65 players who saw action in the six-day tournament. The New Zealanders played in the elite division with 12 others, including national veterans Robert Garcia, David Pelino, Dondon Espinola and MacMac Begornia.

“Both Rafa and Matt are coached by Manny Boy Yam who was our national squash champion for over 10 years,” said Bachmann. “The boys came over to play in the National Open and we’re excited to welcome them as future national players. We’ve got big plans for squash. We want to be active in promoting the sport. We’re now in talks to build a public squash complex somewhere in Makati because our allocated space at the Rizal Memorial has been taken over. We plan to hold several major tournaments a year, including an interclub team competition. We intend to be competitive internationally and we’ll be sending players to events abroad throughout the year. We’re grateful to the POC and PSC for their support and we promise to perform to expectations.”

At the moment, the SRAP’s pool of elite top-level players lists Garcia, Pelino and Myca Aribado. PSC chairman Richie Garcia recently raised the allowances of national athletes by P3,000 a month across the board. The SRAP also maintains a pool of second and developmental level players. Coaches in the SRAP pool are Edgar Balleber, Jun Paganpan and Jaime Ortua.

 SRAP secretary-general Vince Abad Santos said building a pool of junior players is a priority. “Right now, we’ve got 10 to 12 players, 30 percent of whom are girls, in the 11 to 14 age bracket in our juniors pool,” he said. “We plan to expose our juniors to international competitions next year to prepare for the future. We’re grateful to Manny Boy for sending his son Rafa and the Lucente family for sending Matt to Manila for the National Open and making them available for the SEA and Asian Games. They won’t only make our junior team more competitive but also our senior team.”

At the National Open, Lucente took third place, beating Dondon Espinola, 8-11, 11-5, 11-8, 11-7. Lucente lost to eventual champion Garcia, 11-9, 11-5, 11-7, in the semifinals. Lucente took out Bachmann, 11-4, 11-5, 11-2, before beating Begornia, 11-9, 7-11, 7-11, 11-8, 11-2, in the quarterfinals. Yam blanked Ryan Lutz, 11-9, 11-3, 11-3 then bowed to Dondon Espinola, 11-9, 4-11, 6-11, 11-8, 11-6 in the quarterfinals. Lucente and Yam were impressive in holding their own against the country’s senior players.

Yam’s father Manny Boy is a full-time squash coach in New Zealand while his mother Catherine is a kindergarten teacher. Lucente’s father Wilson, an MBA graduate from UP, is a logistics specialist with Warehouse Ltd. while his mother Mitos is a lawyer.

“I left for New Zealand with my parents and brother Miggy when I was seven and started playing squash when I was nine,” said the 5-6 Yam, captain of the All-New Zealand national high school seniors team.”I’ve played thrice for the New Zealand national junior team, twice in Australia. I’m in Year 12 at Westlake Boys High School. I like to play an aggressive game but I adapt to whom I’m playing against. I can keep long rallies going or I can try to kill the ball quickly. The biggest influence in my game is my father. I’ve also learned a lot from my uncle Robi (Yam) who was a former Philippine champion.”

Yam said he hopes to follow in his father’s squash footsteps and bring honor to the Philippines. “I’m excited to play for the Philippines,” he said. “I’ve played for New Zealand but I also want to give back to the country where I was born.” Yam said his favorite player is World No. 1 Gregory Gaultier, the fiery Frenchman known for his intense demeanor on the court.

Lucente, who won the U17 North Island title in New Zealand this year and is in the Oceania top 3 rankings, said squash is played differently in the Philippines. “It’s wonderful that I’m exposed to the style of playing smart, deliberate and slow with long rallies and the style of trying to kill the ball at every chance,” the 5-9 teener said. “You can be all over the place or you can just stay put by controlling the T. I’m learning from different styles and it’s helping me to develop as a player.” Lucente singled out World No. 6 Ramy Ashour of Egypt as his squash idol for his daredevil style.

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