On This Day: Lady Eagles win first UAAP title

Mark Escarlote on Mar 15, 2019 07:38 PM
On This Day: Lady Eagles win first UAAP title
On this day, Ateneo de Manila University captured its breakthrough UAAP women's volleyball championship. This is their journey.

Ateneo de Manila University saw a once imposing nine-point lead deflate to only two points at 21-19 in the third set with four-peat-seeking De La Salle University making a blistering rally just like in the first two frames.

Alyssa Valdez was helpless at the backline with the Lady Spikers exploiting that rotation.

The Lady Eagles managed to stop their bleeding and Valdez moved up to her high-percentage scoring spot. Fourth year libero Denden Lazaro and Ella De Jesus played their role well on floor defense to easily hand the ball to rookie setter Jia Morado.    

Now the spotlight’s on Valdez to do her magic.

Three straight points and the sea of blue in the 21,314-strong crowd inside the packed year-old state-of-the-art Mall of Asia Arena erupted with history unfolding before their eyes.

Four grueling Finals games and the Lady Eagles’ magical journey in the UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball tournament ended with tears in their eyes, the same way they started it.     

 

WE TRUSTED COACH TAI

Ateneo team manager Tony Boy Liao, the architect of the Lady Eagles’ volleyball program that resulted in two straight runner-up finishes from the previous two seasons, gathered his squad for a dinner at Fresh inside the posh Solaire Resort and Casino, which just opened six months prior.

It was September 2013, just two months before the opening of the UAAP season and Ateneo was still looking for a head coach after parting ways with Roger Gorayeb.

With Liao, the amiable godfather of the Lady Eagles, was a very quiet man who barely spoke as he introduced him to the players.

“Is this your team?” he said.

Liao responded, ‘Yes.’

“They’re big,” his companion, answered back.

He looked at the girls once again while they were enjoying their 8:00 p.m. dinner, then he uttered in a short and broken English, “Training, 6:00 a.m., running.”

The Lady Eagles almost lost their appetite.

The next morning, he went early to see if the players would follow. He saw them ready for the morning run.

He blew his whistle loud to call their attention.

“OK, go back to sleep,” he said.

That was how Thai coach Tai Bundit introduced himself to the Lady Eagles, who for the next two months were whipped into well-disciplined, physically and mentally fit volleybelles.  

The following months turned to be a hellish boot camp. Tears shed with Bundit’s Spartan-like training.

He wanted to introduce a mantra that he thought was missing in a team that already lost a lot the season before following the graduation of the Fab Five of Dzi Gervacio, Gretchen Ho, Jem Ferrer, Fille Cainglet and A Nacachi.  

“It started when we were running. Coach Tai, he thought what was lacking was our heart to win,” Valdez said. “Kasi before he came, parang we’re in the Finals na din. Aside from malambot daw ang knees namin, we’re too small, we’re parang jelly legs din ang description n’ya and our hearts weren’t parang strong to win a championship.”

Bundit had a solution to address that.

In order to build the Lady Eagles’ hearts, he had to break them.  

“He made us run and parang laging may time limit eh na kailangang habulin. If we make it to that time raw, our heart is strong daw kasi we’re fighting to that challenge,” Valdez continued.

“May language barrier kasi and he was trying to explain it and the words that came out from his mouth was ‘heartstrong’ and na-adopt din ng lahat,” she continued.

 

WE TOOK IT LITERALLY ONE GAME AT A TIME

With their veterans already exhausting their playing eligibility the season before, Valdez, De Jesus and Lazaro were left to lead a young squad with newcomers Morado, Ana Gopico, Kim Gequillana and Michelle Morente.

Ateneo, which was still adjusting to Bundit’s system, had a lukewarm expectation to advance into the Final Four.

Reigning champion DLSU had most of its core led by graduating Aby Marano intact, losing only Michele Gumabao after the hitter decided to forego her last playing year to dip her hands into showbiz and eventually entering Pinoy Big Brother as a housemate.

National University boasted its twin towers in sisters Dindin and rookie Jaja Santiago, Adamson University was a quick and athletic team that coped with their lack of ceiling with solid floor defense while Far Eastern University had a rising star in power-hitting Bernadeth Pons.

The odds were stacked against Ateneo.   

“We took it literally one game at a time lang that season kasi we’re adjusting with new coaching style, new culture and definitely new teammates especially kami ni Den,” recalled Valdez.

Reality hit Ateneo hard in their season-opener.

The Lady Bulldogs beat the Lady Eagles black and blue, 25-17, 25-22, 25-17.

“During that season our first game was against NU and we lost in straight sets ata. Di namin makakalimutan yun kasi parang against NU and sobrang tambak kami noon,” Valdez said.

The Lady Eagles recovered quickly to string five straight wins then dropped back-to-back games against the Lady Spikers before winning five of their last six games in the eliminations to land at third spot.

While the rest of the field was jousting for position in the Top 4, DLSU went on a romp to complete a sweep of the elims and earned an outright Finals spot and a huge thrice-to-beat advantage.  

“Our goal was to really enter the Final Four, but I think we just peaked at the right time during the season,” said Valdez.

“We weren’t thinking that we’re gonna be able to last until the final game of the season. But we really wanted to get a medal kasi nga kaka-graduate lang ng Fab Five nun,” she added. “We took it one-step at a time and di namin namalayan na umabot na kami sa dulo.”

 

DOON KO NA-REALIZE NA MAYROONG TEARS OF JOY

With DLSU already in the Finals, the Final Four was scratched for a stepladder semifinals with NU taking a twice-to-beat advantage in the last phase of the round.

Ateneo, which landed at no. 3, had to win all of its games in a do-or-die battle to snatch the last championship berth.

The Lady Eagles booted out an exhausted Lady Falcons, who had to eliminate the Lady Tamaraws in a playoff for the no. 4 spot, in straight sets to set up a showdown against the Lady Bulldogs.

“Noong dumating na ‘yung stepladder against NU, we all knew na favorite team talaga ang NU in both games,” said Valdez.

The Lady Eagles were able to take the opening set, got hammered in the second before showing true grit in the next two frames. Ateneo survived, 25-17, 12-25, 31-29, 28-26.

“I think everyone knew and everyone assumed also na we had a lucky game lang noong Game 1,” admitted Valdez.

“Our battlecry during that season was we had nothing to lose. We got what we wanted as a team (to enter the Final Four) and everything’s just a bonus. We were just enjoying every match compared to NU. I think the pressure was really on them kasi NU had the best team with the Santiago sisters together,” she said.

“Siguro mabigat lang din sa kanila kasi Ateneo then ay nagi-enjoy lang na mga bata and not thinking na may masasabi sa kanila kasi we had nothing to lose.”

The pivotal second game of the semis turned out to be Ateneo’s territory, the pressure to win was on the Lady Bulldogs’ side. They had everything to lose.

Game 2 was a mirror of their first meeting with Ateneo taking the first set before NU bared its teeth in a one-sided second set.

The Lady Eagles then stunned Lady Bulldogs to take a resounding, 25-22, 8-25, 25-19, 25-22, victory for their third, albeit unexpected, trip to the Finals for a trilogy against the Lady Spikers.

“Sa second game ng NU, doon ko talaga na-realize na mayroong tears of joy,” Valdez revealed. “Because I was really crying but super happy. I think that game was the game that we never thought that we’ll be in the Finals and we reached it.”

“Parang kahit anong mangyari sa Finals OK lang kasi we made it to the Finals na no one bothered to think about it, even us,” she said.

 

TOTOO BA 'TO?

Valdez and the Lady Eagles were back in the Finals but faced a difficult situation.

They have to win three times to dethrone a powerhouse team that they failed to bring down the previous two seasons.

DLSU had the luxury of a long rest and Finals advantage. Coach Ramil De Jesus’ system until then was invincible and the La Sallian swag led by beast-mode-don’t-care Queen Lady Spiker Marano, Ara Galang and Mika Reyes were enough to deter any team from even thinking of snatching the crown off their heads.

Many thought that Ateneo would just take the supporting role in another DLSU championship story.

Or so they thought.

The Lady Spikers started Game 1 of the series the way many expected, with a convincing set win.

Ateneo stunned DLSU and their legion of supporters by taking the second set in a close contest. Then, the Lady Eagles pulled off a shocker.

With Morente exploding for 17 points and the duo of Valdez and Amy Ahomiro blasting for 16 points each, Ateneo again walked away with another win, 17-25, 25-23, 25-13, 25-20, in front of a 19,893-strong crowd at the Araneta Coliseum.

“Oo naman sino namang di masu-surprise,” said Valdez of their reaction. “La Salle that year was a solid team and really probably sure of that four-peat.”

“Kasi if you play against La Salle, makikita mo sa galaw nila pagpasok nila sa court na they really wanted to win. Dala nila ang confidence na kailangan nila to win a game and win a championship kasi for the longest time sila naman din ang nagtsa-champion,” she added. “They know how to play the game and here we are a newly-formed team with new coach, with a new mantra trying to really just push La Salle to their limits. Kasi we all know naman na favorite sila to be champions sa year na ‘yun.”

As expected DLSU made Ateneo pay in Game 2 as the Lady Spikers moved a win away from a four-peat with a 25-14, 25-20, 19-25, 26-24, victory.

“Game 2, we all know La Salle will come back very strong and it happened,” said Valdez.

Ateneo faced another do-or-die situation in Game 3 – their fourth in the past five games since the semis.    

“In the third game, it could have been won easily by us kasi up kami by two sets,” said Valdez.

The Lady Eagles saw their two-set lead evaporate as the Lady Spikers fought back to force a decider. In the fifth frame, DLSU led, 12-8, and came three points away from a four-peat.

The Lady Eagles mounted a dramatic rally to take a match point advantage, 14-13, before Galang and Reyes pushed the Lady Spikers back at championship point.

Valdez and Morente answered to put Ateneo back on top before Kim Fajardo was called for a double touch that forced the series to an unprecedented fourth and final game.             

The sudden death stage was set.

“Sa Game 4, ang sinabi lang namin sa dugout, ‘We’re here and this is finally our last game. We just have to give our everything pero enjoy pa rin,’ recalled Valdez. “Sabi namin sa dugout before mag-start ang game kahit anong mangyari we made everyone proud naman sa aming community and school, each other. I think that was the best motivation to play well in that last game knowing that everyone’s just happy na umabot kami dun.”

When the Lady Eagles emerged from their dugout, destiny was already smiling at them.   

Ateneo made the three-year dynasty of the Lady Spikers crumble in straight sets, 25-23, 26-24, 25-21.

“Initial reaction, totoo ba to? If you’re a player who haven’t had a championship sa UAAP seniors, kami talaga parang, ‘Tapos na ba ang game? Is it really happening?’” said Valdez. “We couldn’t process everything I think because hindi sa ipinanalo namin siya in straight sets but yung journey namin parang tapos na. Ganoon kabilis kasi we really enjoyed that series. Enjoyed but super naiyak kami sa pagod.”

With the championship trophy on their hands and gold medals hanging on their necks, the Lady Eagles couldn’t help but look back at their long and bumpy journey that season.

“Anong nasa isip namin? ‘Are we really the players that played in that very first game in Season 76 and then now kami ba talaga ang nag-champion?’” Valdez said.

On this day, five years ago, the Ateneo Lady Eagles realized their own real-life fairytale.

 

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @fromtheriles

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