CAMPEONE: Year of the Tiger (2010)
Mark Escarlote on May 09, 2019 07:06 AM
Nine years ago, the Tigresses were queens.
University of Sto. Tomas head coach Shaq delos Santos looked at his squad inside the dugout of The Arena in San Juan one last time.
It was a cool Saturday afternoon.
He took a glimpse at his graduating hitter Angge Tabaquero, who was all pumped up, but was feeling under the weather and could barely speak because of a sore throat.
Delos Santos then shifted his eyes to fourth-year team captain Aiza Maizo, Maika Ortiz, libero Jessica Curato, then to his prized rookies Dindin Santiago and Maru Banaticla.
From their closed locker room, the Tigresses could hear the drums outside and felt the vibration that followed.
The weekend crowd packed the venue in a sea of yellow and green.
Excitement filled the air. It was electric.
Less than an hour before, coach Emil Lontoc celebrated the Tigers’ conquest of Far Eastern University to complete a three-peat in the men's division.
With his eyes closed, Delos Santos murmured one last prayer.
Then there was a soft tap on their dugout door.
It was time to march to the court for the official warm-up for Game 2 of the UAAP Season 72 women’s volleyball tournament.
THE YOUNG AND THE BOLD
Delos Santos knew that they’re in for ride in Season 72.
They pride themselves with three pre-season titles, but those conquests meant nothing when it comes to their mother league.
“Before mag-start (ang season), for me, hindi ko napi-feel na magtsa-champion agad kami,” said Delos Santos. “Kasi ang adjustment kailangan makita mo muna ang lahat ng naglalaro. So depende pa rin sa nilalaro ng every team na makakalaban mo.”
And besides, the mentor will be navigating with a young crew, mostly in their early collegiate careers save for Maizo and returning Tabaquero, two of the remaining heroes of UST’s Season 69 championship run.
Maizo was named team captain while Tabaquero, who skipped Season 71 for personal reasons, brought in the needed veteran presence to guide the squad.
“Ako personally ang mindset ko sobrang hungry lang rin ako personally and I think si Aiza rin kasi halos pa-exit na rin siya nun,” said Tabaquero. “Ako sobrang gusto ko lang for myself na maka-graduate sa UAAP on a high note.”
“On a high lang ako nun kumbaga, ‘Last playing year ko na ‘to wala na akong balikan pa, ibubuhos ko na lahat,’ she added. “Plus the fact na hindi ako nakapaglaro noong Season 71 dagdag gutom sa akin ‘yun.”
But then again, the Tigresses remained relatively young.
Dimaculangan was just in her third year, her first two saw the bitter memory of losing the title in the semifinals at the hands of the Rachel Anne Daquis-led Far Eastern University and then another Final Four heartache against the same tormentors the following year.
Ortiz, Hannah Mance and Curato barely had enough experience on them so did Judy Ann Caballejo.
Then there were the young bloods.
UST got a pair of blue-chip recruits in a small but high-flying power-hitter in Banaticla and a lanky 6-footer Santiago.
The Tigresses were parading a decent squad but not a super team that they had before with Mary Jean Balse and Venus Bernal.
“Nagkaroon kami ng mga rookies noon,” said Dimaculangan. “Nu’ng time na ‘yun kumpiyansa naman ako sa team kasi bakit ka pa maghahanap ng mga wala o bakit ka pa hahanap ng mga naka-graduate na? So kung ano na lang ang meron kami siguro doon na lang.”
Delos Santos, himself, was just on his second year as head coach after taking the reins from legendary mentor August Sta. Maria, who suffered a stroke in 2008.
Expectations were high from the UST faithful.
For the Tigresses, they just have to deliver.
The Tigresses began the season with an early litmus test.
Their first game: against the defending champions De La Salle University Lady Spikers.
UST faced a squad assembled to build a dynasty.
DLSU was denied of a four-peat three years ago when the league suspended the school in Season 69 because of an eligibility issue with its men’s basketball team. In Season 70, the Lady Spikers were forced to forfeit games because of another eligibility issue with Jacq Alarca.
The following year, in Manilla Santos’ final year, DLSU reclaimed the throne.
Now, looking to for a repeat, the Lady Spikers just need to break the will of one of their threats.
DLSU paraded a formidable team centered on its ‘Big Three’ in Alarca, skipper Paneng Mercado, daughter of Asia’s Sprint Queen Lydia De Vega-Mercado, and versatile hitter Cha Cruz.
Then there’s the great wall of Michele Gumabao and rookies Aby Marano and Joanne Siy, who would eventually win the Rookie of the Year and Best Blocker awards.
UST was facing a nightmare.
But the Tigresses were undaunted. They clung on the confidence of bringing down the same giant they slew in the UniGames championship before the start of the season.
With guns blazing and adrenaline in their veins, the Tigresses were able to control the match as they led, 2-1.
Then comes their Achilles’ heel.
UST was a determined team, but the Lady Spikers had in them the championship experience, the veteran composure of a battle-tested squad.
The Tigresses had no answer to that.
DLSU walked away with a 20-25, 25-20, 22-25, 25-22, 15-11, victory to start its amazing elimination round winning streak.
UST recovered in the next three games, walking past University of the Philippines, a rebuilding FEU, and cellar-dwellers National University.
Then came another big challenge.
The Tigresses collided with a feisty young team in Ateneo de Manila University bannered by a hyped Fab Five of sophomores Gretchen Ho, Dzi Gervacio, Fille Cainglet, setter Jem Ferrer and A Nacachi.
The result was a shocker: the Lady Eagles upset the Tigresses.
It may not show inside the court, but the Tigresses were struggling from the inside.
Delos Santos admitted that being a Tigress under his watch was not for the faint of heart. His relationship with the players was not smooth.
He was a blacksmith trying to forge a sharp and deadly weapon. He needed to put his players into the blazing fire of his Spartan-like training, hammer them into shape and sharpen them into a weapon ready for brutal war.
“Napaka-strict ko kaya medyo ano sila sa akin pero at the end of the day na-realize rin nila na ang lahat ng sinasalihan naming tournament, lahat ng paghihirap namin, kapag naglalaro kami talagang quality,” he said. “’Yung pinaghirapan namin talagang nilalabas namin sa game.”
Dimaculangan recalled that that season was marred with conflicts within the team.
“’Yung year na 'yun ang dami talagang pinagdaanan. Ang daming naging issues,” she said declining to divulge what the problems were. “Lahat kami takot sa kanya (Delos Santos). Tapos my time din na feeling namin nabe-burnout na kami.”
“Baliktad nga eh kasi kung kailan ang dami naming issue doon pa namin nasabi na ‘Ay kailangan nating mag-champion.’ Ganoon ang feeling namin,” Dimaculangan added.
Tabaquero would simply describe that Tigresses team as ‘shaky’.
“On the rocks ang team and noon may internal issues din,” she revealed. “Medyo magulo siya pero as players, ‘Kung may mangyari man dyan, labas na sa volleyball ‘yan. Kung ano ang pini-perform natin maglaro tayo ng maayos.’ Siguro yun na lang ang tumatakbo sa isip namin.”
Whatever the issues were inside their team, the Tigresses were able to put them aside as they made an amazing run to close the eliminations.
“Nagulat kami kasi sobrang nakasabay ang mga bata,” said Tabaquero. “Kami ni Aiza halos ang nag-lead sa team na ‘yun pero kasi experienced na ang mga bata na ‘yun kasi coming from UST program sila eh.”
“So medyo kumbaga ang pinanggalingan nilang team mataas din so I guess doon na lang din sila humugot from their experience sa high school. Nadala na lang din siguro pagdating nila,” she added.
ENTERING THE END GAME
With most of the country looking forward to celebrate that special Sunday, the Tigresses were preparing for something bigger.
It was their most-awaited rematch with the Lady Spikers, who heading into that game were already ravaging the league with 13 straight victories.
One win and DLSU will enter the Finals outright armed with a thrice-to-beat advantage.
The Tigresses didn’t allow that.
UST prevented a Lady Spikers elims sweep by slipping past DLSU in a thrilling five-setter. The Tigresses avoided a stepladder semifinals.
UST ended the elims with a nine-game winning streak and second-best 12-2 win-loss record.
From there everything changed.
“Kasi nakuha nila (ang panalo) sa first round then February 14 tinalo namin sila so dun tumaas ang kumpiyansa namin na ‘Ah kaya namin itong La Salle,’” said Tabaquero.
The Tigresses came in the Final Four armed with a twice-to-beat advantage against Ateneo. They split their elims head-to-head but now UST wanted to settle an old score.
It was Maizo and Tabaquero who did most of the damage in the Final Four as the Tigresses crushed the Lady Eagles, 25-12, 25-23, 25-20, all while playing without starting libero Curato, who was out because of typhoid fever.
“I guess kung ikaw mayroon kang chance na makapasok sa championship siguro ibibigay mo ang lahat. Laban kung laban,” said Tabaquero. “’Yun talaga ang mentalidad namin nu’ng time na yun. ‘Yun ang nag-push sa amin na, ‘For championship ito, ibibigay namin ang lahat 110%.’”
Earlier that playdate, the Lady Spikers took the other Finals berth after booting out Adamson University, 16-25, 25-16, 25-22, 25-22.
"EH ANO NGAYON KUNG DEFENDING CHAMPION KAYO?"
Maizo and Tabaquero were UST’s contrasting leaders.
They're yin and yang.
Maizo was a silent operator. She would rather let her work do the talking.
Tabaquero was from a different world.
She will get under your skin, play with your head and she was just plain nasty.
“Season 69 pa lang salbahe na ako maglaro,” she admitted. “Dun lumabas ‘yung moniker ko na ‘Pamewang Queen’. Sobrang intense lang din ng game namin ng FEU nun. Parang sobrang thrashtalkan. Hindi mo man makita on-cam pero doon pa lang talagang may verbal.”
She’s no different in Season 72.
“Hindi naman sa mayabang ako pero nasa utak ko nu’ng time na yun, ‘Ay kaya namin kayo kasi tinalo namin kayo nu’ng eliminations,’” Tabaquero continued.
“Doon ako humugot ng lakas na, ‘hindi tayo papatalo rito.’ Sobrang inspired lang din siguro akong maglaro noon kasi ang daming tao nun. Grabe puno itong San Juan Arena,” she recalled.
Facing DLSU, Tabaquero knew they can rip the crown off the Lady Spikers’ heads.
“Ako personally, ‘Eh ano ngayon kung defending champion kayo?” she said.
It was 2010 and UST just needed to look at the Chinese calendar for an inspiration.
“Year of the Tiger yun, sumakto,” said Dimaculangan. “Iba ang kompiyansa namin na parang amin ‘to.”
The Tigresses could see the stars aligning for them, the opportunity was there.
Then came the best-of-three series opener.
Delos Santos was not new to the Finals. He worked as Sta. Maria’s deputy before.
But this was his biggest challenge. His shining moment.
Looking back, he felt that Sta. Maria molded him for this situation.
“Before nakakuha rin kami ng isa pang championship eh. Sina Bernal, Balse pero si Coach August ang head coach pa nun that time,” he said.
“Ang ginawa niya that time sobrang gusto niyang mag-grow ako. Noong Finals namin against FEU, umalis siya. Hindi siya nagpunta ng game tapos nung mag-start na ang game hinahanap ko siya,” Delos Santos continued. “Tinawagan ko siya, sabi ko, ‘Boss nasaan ka?’ Nasa norte siya eh parteng norte."
"Sabi ko, ‘boss nasaan ka?’ Sabi niya, ‘kayang-kaya mo na ‘yan. Ikaw ng bahala dyan,’” he said. “’Yung time na yun doon ko na-feel na grabe ang tiwala niya sa akin.”
Against a taller Lady Spikers side, Delos Santos needed just one key to success: speed.
“I think that time sobrang lucky ko rin kasi ang mga players ko. Yun nga sina Rhea na, sina Tabaquero, sina Aiza. So that time yung system na gusto naming mangyari, more on lalo na kailangang maging speedy kami. Mabilis kami, nakuha namin that time. Siguro yun ang naging key,” he said.
“Kasi knowing La Salle ang no. 1 weapon nila is blocking eh. Bukod dun sa service nila na napakabigat, yung blocking. Mayroon silang malalaking players and ang ganda lagi ng line-up nila,” Delos Santos said.
As the battle ensued, Delos Santos felt that they had the upper hand.
“I think nu’ng time na ‘yun medyo na-feel ko na makukuha namin,” he said. “That time na naglaro na kami sabi ko, sa galawan na nangyayari nakuha namin yung magandang diskarte.”
And that strategy was to exploit the height disadvantage of DLSU setter Kaye Martinez. For Delos Santos the best way to stop the Lady Spikers’ deadly arrows was to break their bow.
“That time malalaki sila pero meron silang maliit na setter. Maliit ang setter nila so more on dun kami nagsi-set play ng nagsi-set play,” he said. “Nagkaroon din kami ng magandang receive and then si Rhea nabibigay niya ng maayos sa mga spikers.”
It was shocker.
UST recovered from a set down to beat DLSU, 24-26, 25-23, 25-16, 25-21.
For the first time in Season 72, the Taft-based squad got its back on the wall.
SHAQ THE WORLD
The Tigresses were on a high as they arrived at the game venue in the last weekend of February just three days after shocking the Lady Spikers in the series opener.
Entering the venue, the Tigresses were greeted by a huge crowd of UST faithful, all hoping for the clincher.
Tabaquero was feeling ill that day.
“Naalala ko may sakit ako nu’ng Game 2. Wala akong boses nun,” said the senior, who skipped Thursday’s practice to rest.
But Tabaquero was determined to play one last time, give her team the firepower and angst it needed, to finish her collegiate career on top.
“Wala ng sakit-sakit, di pwedeng may sakit. Di ko na siya nararamdaman. Minsan napapagod pero wala kailangang magsakripisyo. Saka yung adrenaline ko sobrang taas nun,” said Tabaquero.
As the Tigresses trooped to the court for the warm-up, they were showered by loud cheers from the UST fans.
“Go USTe! Go USTe!” echoed inside the arena like a rolling thunder signaling the arrival of a storm.
A serenade for conquering heroes.
There was a huge banner that read: ‘Kami po ang University of Sto. Tomas.’
It added fuel to the Tigresses’ burning desire to reclaim the throne.
The squad came into the venue brimming with confidence but with their supporters egging them on even before the opening serve, the Tigresses felt invincible.
UST dismantled the confused Lady Spikers in the first two sets, dominating DLSU with sharp angled attacks and frustrating its blockers.
Defensively, the Tigresses were punishing DLSU’s attackers.
“Dumipensa lang talaga kami noon saka nagkaroon kami ng first ball. ‘Yun talaga ang edge namin nun,” said Dimaculangan. “Kumbaga parang hindi ako masyadong nahirapang dumiskarte kasi alam kong darating sa akin ang bola.”
The Lady Spikers’ defense was also in disarray. Even DLSU’s celebrated libero Mel Gohing, the rookie of the year the season before, was already struggling to keep up with the Lady Spikers’ net defense collapsing.
“Yung mga spikers ko ang gagaling din dumiskarte and alam din nila kung ano ang gagawin nila sa bolang ibinibigay ko sa kanila,” added Dimaculangan.
The Tigresses were already smelling blood.
But the Lady Spikers regrouped in the third as hitters Cruz and Mercado’s hits found their mark. Gumabao, Siy and Maarano were holding their own.
DLSU took the third frame in dominating fashion.
It may have turned the tides around for the Lady Spikers.
DLSU built an early five-point cushion in the fourth frame, but the Tigresses raced to a 16-11 lead before Gumabao stopped the bleeding with a crosscourt hit.
Maizo then landed an off speed hit over blockers Siy and Martinez, then the lefty again scored another heady off speed this time over Alarca for an 18-12 lead.
Then came the deluge of errors by DLSU.
The Lady Spikers crowd went quiet in the pivotal run of the Tigresses. A kill block by Ortiz put UST at championship point, 24-13, as the DLSU faithful froze, seemingly awaiting an inevitable defeat.
“Parang pa-last point pa lang ata naiiyak na kaming lahat,” said Dimaculangan.
An overexcited Tabaquero sent her serve long then Maizo’s attack was turned back. Two match points saved by DLSU.
The Lady Spikers tried to hold on.
But it was too late.
Nerves got the best of Emeli Zuno as she made contact with the ball at the service line.
It sailed long.
Pandemonium broke out.
“Nagtatalon na kami nu’ng moment na yun, na ‘Heto na ang pinaghirapan natin.’ Ang sarap sa feeling na mag-champion ulit,” said Tabaquero after the final whistle of the season was called with UST completing the sweep with a 25-18, 25-14, 16-25, 25-15, victory.
For Delos Santos that championship was the fruit of their hard labor.
“Sobrang happy kasi siyempre nagkaroon kami ng championship sa UST,” said Delos Santos of his only title for the Tigresses as head coach.
“Sobrang memorable. Marami rin kaming pinagdaanan (bago makuha),” he added.
UST accomplished a double-crown feat in volleyball that year, its fifth since the 1976-77, 1985-86 at 1987-88 and 1992-1993 seasons.
As a reward the Tigresses earned a trip to Hong Kong.
But even that trip had some good anecdotes for Delos Santos, Dimaculangan and Tabaquero.
“Nag-trip to Hong Kong kami for two to three days sa Disneyland at Ocean Park,” said Delos Santos. “Sila lang mahilig mag-rides eh. Ako may phobia ako sa heights. Nung sumakay kami ng cable car para akong mahuhulog na ewan dun sa cable car.”
Dimaculangan remembered vividly their flight.
“Nag-Hong Kong kami noon tapos sakto pa na bumabagyo noong umalis kami noon. Buti nga natuloy kami noon eh,” she said.
As for Tabaquero, unfortunately, she had to skip the trip.
“Nagpunta sila ng Hong Kong pero ako di ako nakasama kasi late yung Hong Kong trip. Di ako nakasama kasi na-ACL (left injury) na ako nun sa Shakey’s V-League, yung sa championship ng San Sebastian,” she said. “Naka-schedule na ako ng surgery nun sa UST hospital kaya di ako nakasama.”
“May incentive naman ako nun kahit di ako nakasama nun,” Tabaquero cleared.
Nine years ago, UST ruled Season 72.
It was the year of the Tiger.
The year of the mighty, mighty Tigers.
Follow this writer on Twitter, @fromtheriles