I don’t know where to begin. Everything seems like a dream. It took some time for me to realize that we are indeed the UAAP champions. I’ve waited so long for this and it came at the probably the most unexpected situation; the reason why the championship is I guess the sweetest in history and also the most talked about.
How they rose
Being a fan of the team for 10 years is really something I’m proud of. I saw how this team rose from the ashes from their cellar-dwellar years and of course, their first championship ever. It was not easy being an Ateneo fan back then. When watching games, you’d only see like 10 other fans wearing blue or cheering for Ateneo. Others were either parents or family members of the Ateneo team. Well back then, Ateneo doesn’t really invest much on recruiting and they would just get players from either tryouts or those who would pass the ACET. So yeah, it was really hard to build a very competitive program back then. But when Tony Boy Liao came in, everything changed.
You see, volleyball is not a very famous sport for a male-dominated school like Ateneo. There are what we call stereotypes and other masculine what-nots whenever volleyball is being talked about. But, I’m amazed how the love for the sport grew for the Ateneo community. If back then, there would be like only 10 of us watching, this time, the whole university and the alumni are getting more involved. Back when I was in high school, I’m the only volleyball fan in our class in our second year but come third year, volleyball attracted my whole class (but also because beautiful girls Denise Tan and Rachel Anne Daquis were the stars of UAAP back then). It was in my senior year in high school (2007-08) when the sport picked up a lot of fans not only in my school but also in the country. It was so easy to watch UAAP volleyball back then because the games are in Blue Eagle Gym. We just have to ride one tricycle after school and we would be at the venue, not knowing we were watching would-be legendary players like Charo Soriano, Patti Taganas, Kara Acevedo, Ange Tabaquero, Ging Balse, Venus Bernal, Wendy Semana, Rachel Daquis, Maica Morada and many other more names. Who knew. That season, Ateneo made the Final Four the first time. And that season saw Ateneo beat La Salle the first time in history. It felt awesome but at the same time, it was somewhat expected knowing La Salle was rebuilding and is coming from a suspension. Only a few people were watching the game that time but Charo Soriano was the “Alyssa Valdez” that time. She would do everything for Ateneo but I consider her job much harder cause she is leading an Ateneo team that time which did not have much high school standouts and a team full of inexperienced players.
When they entered the Final Four, I told myself that this might just be the start of the rise. And yep, it was. The Fab Five entered the program. I knew they were something. I knew they would spark something for Ateneo. In Season 71, we weren’t really expecting anything but we were very happy with how they performed on the court. Gretchen Ho, Jem Ferrer, Fille Cainglet and Dzi Gervacio showed a lot of promise that time. They would force all teams to 5 sets, they would not win, but you’d just love how they fought for every point back then even it was the opponent’s home court (yes, FEU had games in their home turf back then). The next year opened a lot of doors for them. They beat a very tough UST team who eventually won the championship that year UST had the likes of Maizo, Dimaculangan, Tabaquero, Santiago, Ortiz and Banaticla that time. It was an amazing game and it went to 5 sets. Dzi Gervacio had 26 points that time and that kind of gave the Ateneo team some confidence for the season. They finished 3rd place but it wasn’t a sad one. It was the first Final Four for the Fab Five and they level up their play that time. The last two years before this year have been impressive too, but La Salle is just really too good. It was very sad to see Cainglet, Ho, Ferrer, Nacachi and Gervacio graduate but it served as a lesson for the volleyball program. I also loved how they sparked some attention for Philippine volleyball. It’s probably something that led to this year’s championship.
Yup. Aside from heart strong, “no expectations” was the most overused line of the season for Ateneo players and the fans. After losing the Fab Five to graduation and with a new coach and with injured players, you’d think Ateneo won’t fight or won’t have a very good season. It seemed like that in the opening game. But Ateneo won more games which led most fans to believe that there is still a chance. A chance to challenge higher ranked teams and to be able to somewhat impress more fans in the season. I don’t know if you guys remember but right after Ateneo won against I think FEU or Adamson in the first round, I tweeted something like, “Mukhang sila (Ateneo & La Salle) pa rin ang magkikita sa Finals.” I just saw something different from them in that game that’s why I was so impressed and I said that. I never thought it would happen.
Funny thing though is that when you watch Ateneo’s losses in the eliminations, one could easily say, “kaya pero kulang.” In that 2nd round game against NU, they were leading almost every set but NU would have this scoring spree whenever Dindin Santiago is at the back serving. But back then, you can tell that they can beat NU. Luckily, in that third set, they won but the misfortunes kept coming for Ateneo as Denden Lazaro got injured in the 4th set. Now what’s the significance of this game? I told my fellow diehards, I think this might be the start of their run for a title. And it was. After the game against NU, they won 8 straight games or 10/11 games.
And then the painful back to back lopsided losses to La Salle. Haters kept on bashing Ateneo because of the scores and how they were all playing in those games. True enough, they were different players in both games. I remember Jia Morado telling me that she was very overwhelmed with the big crowd, with La Salle and with the championship-like atmosphere of the game. As a rookie, I expected her to say that. There was this Ana Gopico injury. Just when Ateneo found a strong middle, and then poof, she got injured in the middle of the season. Some said it was over. Some even counted Ateneo out of the Final Four.
When Gopico was injured against UST, I was nervous. It’s hard losing your best middle blocker. This is where you should really appreciate Kiwi Ahomiro. The girl trained as an opposite all year but when Ana got injured, she played a different position, and for me, even did better in that position. It’s all about stepping up and Kiwi Ahomiro did just this. Maybe even more. If there was a Best Blocker or maybe even best middle in the Finals (no disrespect to Aby Marano and Mika Reyes), she could have won it with her high percentage in spiking and massive blocking. She averaged 5 blocks a game in the Finals. Impressive stats. And what’s even more delightful is the fact that she has two more playing years. The future is bright with this girl in the team.
Likewise, Michelle Morente has been a total surprise for Ateneo, especially in the 2nd round. She got her groove in that game against UST and from then on, she would be one of the most consistent players in the team. But aside from her skills, I think her spunk in the game is really a joy to watch. She’s energetic and she has this demeanor on the court where she means business but fun at the same time. I also like her “babawi ako” attitude. You can see it whenever she would get blocked or would have an error.
Julia Morado is just phenomenal. She’s the future of Philippine volleyball. Her setting is very good. I don’t know if you guys watch international volleyball but Julia Morado really plays a lot like Nootsara Tomkom, a 4-time world best setter. She does the low-fast play well and is very unpredictable. If she will develop her blocking and serving more, she would be a more awesome setter not only for Ateneo but for the Philippines. I also love the fact that she controls everything for Ateneo. She controls the pace and also the emotions of the girls by being their semi-leader. It’s not everyday you have a super rookie who acts like a team captain right away.
Denden Lazaro has been the lifeblood of Ateneo this year. Without her, I don’t know where Ateneo will be. She might not be the captain but her leadership is very evident in the Ateneo team. If you would see, she’d join Alyssa in pushing her teammates especially if the opponent is on a run. Remember Finals Game 2? Her injury somewhat demoralized the Ateneo team. They seemed lost and seemed like they don’t know what to do without Denden Lazaro. There is no denying that Denden Lazaro is slowly emerging as one of the country’s best liberos out there. Like what my Tito Noel Zarate said, this season saw her play better even against the likes of Lizlee Ann Gata and Jen Reyes.
Alyssa Valdez is already a great player. She has deadly spikes and mean serves but this season showcased her leadership skills and saw her improve in a lot of aspects. Her blocking, digging and receiving improved big time this year. I remember in one of the tweets back then that Alyssa Valdez was really training very hard to improve her floor defense. And she did. Watch the Finals series and see how her digs were very crucial, especially in Game 4 where the spikes of Galang and Marano seemed like nothing to her. Needless to say, she was Ateneo’s 2nd libero this season. Just when we thought she is already a great player, she keeps on improving in different things. Not to pressure her but I’m very excited how she will grow more as a player in her next two years in the UAAP. Likewise, when the Fab Five turned the team captain chores to her, I knew she would handle it well. Even back then, she showed signs of leadership and she deserves the MVP and Finals MVP a lot because of this.
Coach Tai. Where to begin. He came to Ateneo just as a consultant. His job was just really to train the Ateneo girls. I was even surprised before when he was listed as the coach. But more than his impressive credentials with the Thailand volleyball program, we saw more of his psychological approach to the game. It’s already given that he trains well but what’s more impressive is how he pushes the girls and how he keeps telling them to play with heart, to play happy and to play unity. Call it cheesy or what but it’s really these three things which made them win the title. They are faced with impossible situations but Coach Tai is always there to remind them to play with heart and to be happy in playing. I think there was never even a tad bit of pressure you would hear in his timeouts for Ateneo. His Japan rotation was also the lucky charm for Ateneo. I think this rotation is magical. When he changed to this rotation, they had a winning streak and even won the championship. Here’s to hoping that the rotation’s magic would still work in V-League and in the coming years. Haha.
People are already talking about what might happen next season for Ateneo especially since Ateneo won’t really lose a key player to graduation. Coach Tai also said he’ll be back come come June. I won’t blame them. The girls are now the defending champions despite having a young line-up. I mean come on. It would be silly not to expect from some team who just won a championship with that kind of line-up. But of course, it’s also good to manage expectations. After all, we never expected any of this.
Even before the season started, I told myself, Season 77 is Ateneo’s year. I would have wanted them to at least get a lot of experience this year before their “title run” for next year. But damn, they overachieved like 100 times in a lot of ways already. Until now, I still can’t believe Ateneo won the championship. It’s just so surreal. I mean, yeah, I’ve been watching videos and all but there’s still this question, “Champion ba talaga?”. But like what others have been saying, the reason why this championship is so sweet is because of what they have to go through to win this thing. They won all of their do or die games. They defeated their elimination tormentors twice (NU) and thrice (La Salle). They really defied the odds. Even if you’re a diehard, the first thing that comes to mind is the word, IMPOSSIBLE. But they did the impossible, and that’s why this championship is oh-so-sweet! Reminds me so much of the Season 65 of the Blue Eagles (basketball).
I have this intense circle of friends. We have a private group on Facebook and ever since the first round we have been really talking about La Salle sweeping the eliminations…..but the thought of Ateneo winning the championship did not come until they had this mini-winning streak. I remember, I told my friend Amae that the championship would go to 4 games and Ateneo will win it in three sets. In fact, I even told Amae that after the game, the girls will go to the bonfire to celebrate their championship. I told this when Ateneo won Game 1 of the Final Four against NU. Want proof? I can printscreen our conversation. Haha. But I never thought that would come true. I mean, I was just kidding actually or maybe I said those things out of big trust and confidence with the team. I never really thought it would come true. So I was in awe how things went the way I said it.
Right after their last point, I was crying. 10 years of waiting is over. I was just so happy that time. It took some time for it to sink in. No one expected them to win it all and they had to go through a lot (twice to beat by NU, thrice to beat by La Salle) to win the championship.
It was a blessing by God and we can be thankful for a long time.
Years from now, people would be talking about this cinderella story. They would eventually share it to their kids and to their grandkids.
It’s really one of the sports stories ever.
It’s one for the ages.
I’m glad to have experienced it.
Thank you for those who believed!
Thank you Lady Eagles!
Thank you Coach Tai!
and most of all,
Thank you Lord!