10 Pinoy athletes to watch out for in the 2017 SEA Games

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 16 2017 03:42 PM | Updated as of Aug 16 2017 04:04 PM

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is sending a contingent of 493 athletes to the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, with the goal of improving upon the nation's disappointing sixth place finish in Singapore two years ago.

Philippine sport officials have predicted a medal haul of 63 golds, which would be a stunning improvement over Team Philippines' performance in 2015. Two years ago, the country won only 29 gold medals.

The pressure is slowly but surely building as the Games draw closer, but the spotlight shines brighter on some athletes than others.

Here are 10 athletes to watch out for in the 2017 SEA Games, which officially opens on August 19.

1. Luis Gabriel Moreno (archery)

The 19-year-old Moreno won the Philippines' first ever medal in the Summer Youth Olympics when he teamed up with China's Li Jiaman to win the mixed international team event in archery back in Nianjing in 2014.

The grandson of the late German Moreno, Luis Gabriel will compete in the recurve events in Kuala Lumpur.

He opens his campaign on August 20. Photo from @_gabmoreno on Instagram

2. Mary Joy Tabal (marathon)

The first Filipina marathoner to compete in the Summer Olympics, Tabal's participation in the SEA Games was fraught with controversy. She was initially excluded from Team Philippines, allegedly for failing to follow the rules of the federation.

It was only in mid-June that PATAFA officially reinstated Tabal, paving the way for her inclusion. Tabal won silver in Singapore and represented the Philippines in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Tabal runs on the morning of August 19.

Eric Cray reacts after being disqualified in the heats of the men's 400m hurdles athletics event at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 6, 2017.

3. Eric Cray (athletics)

Cray was one of Team Philippines' stars in Singapore, as he ruled the 100-m and 400-m hurdles, setting a new record in the latter event. He went on to represent the country as well in the Rio Olympics.

Cray's preparations for the SEA Games took a hit after he false-started in the World Championships in London last week, but Southeast Asia's fastest man remains the favorite heading into his events.

Cray will open his campaign on August 22. Adrian Dennis, AFP

4. Kobe Paras (basketball)

The youngest member of the men's national basketball team, Kobe Paras fulfilled one of his goals by representing the country in the SEA Games for the first time.

Despite his youth, Paras is no stranger to international tournaments, and his athleticism and size for his position should make him a key contributor to the basketball team, which is favored to defend its medal.

The basketball tournament starts on August 20.

5. Afril Bernardino (basketball)

The anchor of National University's dominant women's basketball team, Afril Bernardino is determined to help the Philippines win the women's basketball gold for the first time ever in the SEA Games.

A versatile guard who regularly collected double-doubles in the UAAP, Bernardino is boosted by a stint in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup last month.

"Lalaban kami hangga't sa makakayan namin para sa bayan natin," Bernardino promised.

The basketball tournament opens on August 20.

6. Rubilen Amit (billiards)

One of the Philippines' brightest gold medal hopes in Kuala Lumpur, Rubilen Amit is participating in the biennial tournament for the seventh time. "Bingkay" has won five golds in the SEA Games, and was part of a Filipina 1-2 in 2015 when she and teammate Chezka Centeno met in the finals.

Amit is limited to just one event – the women's nine-ball singles – in the 2017 SEA Games. She is hopeful that she and Centeno will once again pull off a 1-2 finish.

"She'll take care of her side, and I'll take care of my side. We're hoping to meet in the Finals, and then the pressure's off. Sana mabigay namin at maganda ang maging performance namin," said Amit.

The women's nine-ball singles competition starts on August 22.

7. Eumir Felix Marcial (boxing)

The 21-year-old Marcia has been winning gold medals for the Philippines since he was a teenager. In 2015, he dominated the welterweight division as Filipino boxers delivered gold after gold.

Now a middleweight, Marcial is determined to once again bring home a gold medal.

"Sa training namin, ginawa namin lahat ng mga binibigay ng mga coaches. May tiwala ako na sa tulong ng Panginoon, makakakuha ako ulit ng gold," he said.

The boxing event opens on August 20.

8. Jarvey Gayoso (football)

Gayoso is a third-generation athlete who sparked the Ateneo de Manila University men's football team to the UAAP Season 79 championship, winning Best Striker and MVP honors along the way. The 6-foot striker hopes to maintain his form in the SEA Games, where the men's Under-22 team tries to recover from a fifth place finish in 2015.

They got off to a superb start in the competition, beating Cambodia 2-0 on Tuesday night. Gayoso won a corner in the 50th minute that led to Reymart Cubon's opening goal.

They return to action on Wednesday against Vietnam.

9. Alyssa Valdez (volleyball)

Women's volleyball is not expected to produce gold in the SEA Games, not with regional powerhouse Thailand still playing at a world-class level. Still, all eyes are expected to be on the team, and three-time UAAP MVP Alyssa Valdez will surely get a lion's share of attention.

The women's team prepared for the SEA Games by competing in the AVC Asian Senior Women's Championship, where they earned a breakthrough victory over another regional rival, Vietnam. In that game, Valdez lived up to the billing, scoring 20 points including a trio of clutch aces and the match-winning kill.

The volleyball tournament opens on August 21.

10. Kirstie Elaine Alora (taekwondo)

Alora, another Rio Olympian, will be at the forefront of the Philippine contingent in the opening ceremonies as the nation's flag-bearer.

Already a three-time SEAG gold medalist, Alora is gunning for yet another gold as she competes in the under-73 kg event.

"I'm proud and more inspired po to strive harder to produce a medal kasi siyempre, sa akin naka-tingin 'yung mga tao, because I'm the flag-bearer," said Alora.

The taekwondo competition opens on August 27.

(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)