Ateneo's Fab 5: The Fearless Underdogs of UAAP Volleyball
Mark Escarlote on May 24, 2020 08:45 AM
The Fab 5 saw the rise of Ateneo de Manila University women's volleyball program, this is their story.
(This story was originally published on April 20, 2018)
Newly-appointed head coach Roger Gorayeb looked at his line-up heading into UAAP Season 71.
A champion mentor of NCAA powerhouse San Sebastian College - Recoletos, Gorayeb had in his hands a gargantuan task of rebuilding the Ateneo de Manila University women’s volleyball program.
Just a few months before, Ronald Dulay, the mentor before him, landed a trio of blue chip recruits who were fresh from a successful stint in the Palarong Pambansa.
Angeline "Dzi" Gervacio, Fille Saint Cainglet and Jamenea "Jem" Ferrer just joined the Katipunan-based squad.
Gervacio and Cainglet were products of St. Scholastica's College in Manila while Ferrer was a gem from Hope Christian School under girl’s volleyball guru Jerry Yee.
Looking at his 15-woman line-up with the season just a few months ahead, Gorayeb knew he needed to do something drastic.
The roster just won’t do.
Talking to then athletic director Ricky Palou and team manager Tony Boy Liao, the mentor told the team officials that he intended to cut five players from the list.
One could just imagine the shock in their faces.
“Nakita ko may line-up pero player-playeran lang yung ganoon bang tipo, 15 ata yun. Sabi ko ‘Magtatanggal ako ng lima then magre-recruit ako,’” he said.
The three rookies were in. Middle Bea Pascual, Kara Acevedo and libero Steph Gabriel retained their spots.
He needed more.
“Sa mga tinira kong players, si Kara Acevedo sabi niya, ‘Coach mayroong player ang ICA (Immaculate Conception Academy) na gumraduate naka-exam na rito pasado.’ Sabi ko, ‘Sige papuntahin mo,’” said Gorayeb.
It was Gretchen Ho.
“Sa akin kasi ang talagang nagyaya sa akin si Coach Ron Dulay. Si Kara Acevedo teammate ko and she’s been recruited by Ateneo. So one summer wala akong magawa naki-train lang ako noon tapos nagustuhan nila ang laro ko and then fourth year noong graduate na ako I passed the ACET then niyayaya na nila ako,” Ho said. “Then nagbago ng coach na si Coach Roger and dun niya ako nakita.”
“Pagdating ko ng March (sa Ateneo) wala na akong way para maka-recruit pa. Ang nangyari yung tatlo accepted na kaagad. Si Gretchen tinanong ko sabi ko, ‘ano ba ang laro mo?’ Sabi niya the usual panggitna, tres,” Gorayeb recalled.
“So sinubukan ko pero ang laro niya tres hindi quick. Siya panggitna pero hindi quicker na gusto ko saka yung height niya (maliit). Kaya lang si Gretchen takbo ng takbo, mahilig magtatakbo so sabi ko sige pwede na yan. Wala namang player na during that time. So kinuha ko si Gretchen.”
Gorayeb just needed just one more.
“Ngayon nagkaroon ng STCAA (Southern Tagalog Calabarzon athletic association) eh kulang pa ako ng isa, wala akong panggitna. Ang gitna ko during that time si Bea lang tapos si Gretchen so wala akong pamalit. So naisipan ko may nakita ako sa STCAA,” he said.
He spotted a lanky player from Canossa Academy-Lipa, Aillysse Nacachi.
“Sabi ko kay Sir Tony pagtyagaan ko na lang ito kahit hindi naman kalakasan at wala naman na rin akong choice na makapili kasi rush ang pagdating ko dyan. Nakiusap lang sila sa akin na magbuo ako ng team kasi si Ronald nag-resign,” said Gorayeb.
Another freshman could’ve had ended up with Ateneo, Hope’s libero Melissa Gohing.
But a few obstacles prevented her from fulfilling her promise to join Ferrer in Ateneo. She instead chose to join the ladies in green and white in Taft.
December 7, 2008. Far Eastern University Gym.
Excitement filled the air. Fans, mostly volleyball purists and some who just came to support their classmates or were just curious to see a new spectacle after the basketball season ended, slowly settled in their seats for the women’s division’s second game.
It was Adamson University, the previous year’s runner-up, which just visited the turf of their arch nemesis and defending champion FEU, which was led by that era’s finest and most popular volleybelle Rachel Anne Daquis.
Fans wanted to see if the Lady Falcons still had the same firepower they had the previous season with the loss of top setter Janet Serafica and power hitter Sang Laguilles.
A rookie-laden Ateneo squad should be easy pickings with Angela Benting, rookie Pau Soriano and libero Lizlee Anne Gata in the roster. Besides the Lady Falcons got the Lady Eagles’ number.
Or so they thought.
“Naalala ko nu’ng time namin sinasabi sa amin ng seniors namin na, ‘Hay naku ang lakas ng Adamson, never kami nanalo dyan,’” Cainglet, now happily married to Taguig mayor Lino Cayetano and with three beautiful children, recalled.
But the Lady Eagles stunned Adamson in the opening set. The Lady Falcons took the next two frames.
Ateneo stole the fourth.
“Ako naalala ko ano eh, parang alam namin na lahat kasi kami palaban. Nasa amin yun. Tapos binigyan kaming lahat ng chance to be in the first six so parang dream come true,” said Ho, now an ABS-CBN host. “Naalala ko rin na palaban kaming lahat kumbaga nothing to lose eh so ang ano namin, sumasabay kami sa laro and nu’ng nakita na namin na ‘Ay kaya pala natin ‘to guys. Kaya pala naming lumaban.’”
Still, Adamson had the upper hand in experience.
The Lady Falcons, used to pressure and were steady at crunch time, outlasted Ateneo.
The young Katipunan-based squad fell short, 25-22, 22-25, 15-25, 25-15, 8-15.
But for the Fab 5, it was a loss that felt like a resounding victory.
“Parang sobrang natutuwa kami and everybody in the crowd, kaya siguro kami natawag na Fab 5 kasi rookies kami pero kahit ganoon palaban kami,” said Ho. “Saka close game. Five sets yun.”
However, it was the first of five five-set matches that Ateneo will drop that season including one in the second round against the Manilla Santos-bannered De La Salle University.
“Pero ang problema di kami nananalo ng five sets. Parang ilan lang ang naipanalo namin na ganoon. Feeling ko na-overwhelm kami na ‘Uy nananalo tayo.’ May ganoong disbelief ng konti pero alam namin na may ibubuga kami,” said Ho.
“Definitely, our rookie season was full of five-set matches. It was tough, we felt like we were so close, but still so far away. At some point, it gave us frustration also. We just couldn't figure out that time what is it that's still lacking because we couldn't win the five-set matches,” according to Nacachi. “People said, it was because the team was still so inexperienced. We still didn't have the tenacity unlike of those more matured teams. But we didn't take it as bad, it was a learning experience for us all at the end. We had to learn how to develop that finishing will to be able to win games like that in the future.”
The Fab 5 finished their rookie season with a 6-8 slate at fifth spot.
‘MAY MEDAL NA TAYO’
Gorayeb remembered on their second year the look on Pascual’s face in their last elimination game match against Adamson.
Already wrapping up their first win over the Lady Falcons, Pascual was giddy.
“Natatawa nga ako dyan kay Bea kasi papanalo na kami nu’n tapos sumesenyas na siya ng tres. Sabi ko, ‘Hoy anong ginagawa mo?’ Yun pala sobrang saya na niya kasi for the first time in 30 years magkaka-medal na sila,” he said.
It was the most important match of the season for the Lady Eagles.
With the Fab 5 already in their sophomore year, Ateneo was already making great strides.
The Lady Eagles closed that season’s elims with five straight wins capped off with a victory over Adamson.
Ateneo posted a 10-4 win-loss mark to enter the Final Four legitimately.
“Ang nangyari kasi nu’ng time nila Charo (Soriano) kaya sila nakapasok sa semis kasi may nag-squeal na si (Jacq) Alarca di pala naka-enroll nu’n kaya na-forfeit mga laro ng La Salle,” said Gorayeb.
The Fab 5 proved that they were not just a bunch of much-hyped up pretty faces. They backed it up with their skills on court. It didn’t matter that Ateneo were swept by eventual champion University of Sto. Tomas in the Final Four.
But the podium finish of Season 72 was short-lived.
Adamson got its revenge in the last game of Season 73 elims, bumping off the Lady Eagles for a podium finish.
The loss put Ateneo in a collision course with the twice-to-beat DLSU, who could’ve completed an elims sweep if not only for a forfeited match against University of the East after UAAP found out that Carmela Garbin and Clarisse Yeung participated in a ‘ligang labas’ while the season was onoing, in the Final Four.
Ateneo gave the Lady Spikers a scare before succumbing in another heartbreaking five-set match.
The Lady Eagles finished fourth but that lone semis game gave Ateneo and its maturing Fab 5 enough experience to dream for something big – A ticket into the Finals.
‘HINOG NA KAYO’
The first three years saw the gradual improvement for Ateneo.
But Season 74 proved to be the turning point for the Fab 5.
A fresh new recruit from University of Sto. Tomas high school, who just completed a year of residency, came into picture and with the Fab 5 armed with years of experience, the Lady Eagles’ fate will forever be changed.
Alyssa Valdez, a highly recruited open spiker just like Gervacio, Cainglet-Cayetano and Ferrer years back, gave renewed excitement for the Ateneo faithful.
“Alyssa's joining with Ateneo was a great turning point for us. We needed as much support we can get, and Alyssa's entrance to the team was a great boost to the team's morale,” said Nacachi. “The girl is a powerhouse and we felt like with her presence, the team finally became solid.”
“We were able to play around with the positions and the rotations, since we had different versatile open players who can also greatly play other roles,” she added. “We were also able to formulate a lot of plays and attacks because Alyssa can generally do all kinds; open, running, quick, name it all. She gave the team the power and the versatility that we previously lacked from the past seasons.”
Social media was just gaining traction then but the Lady Eagles were already on the radar of volleyball purists through online forums.
For the first time, Ateneo was considered a legitimate contender.
The Fab 5 proved it by winning 11 games in the elimination round, losing only to UST once and dropping two against the Lady Spikers.
Valdez’s arrival gave Ferrer an even broader option on offense. It eased the scoring load off the shoulders of Cainglet and Gervacio, who was then moved to an opposite position.
“I guess sakto lang din yung dating niya because by that time Kara Acevedo graduated so someone had to fill in her spot so coach Roger decided for me to move to utility or opposite,” said Gervacio. “And then sakto Alyssa naman could fill in the spot na other open spiker.”
“So timing din na we had all the pieces put together at the right time,” she added.
With a good performance in the elims despite missing a legit middle in Bea Pascual and the entry of Aerieal Patnongon barred by academic problems, Ateneo finished second and for the first-time was armed with a twice-to-beat advantage in the stepladder semifinals.
The Lady Eagles faced an experienced Tigresses side in the last stepladder semis stage.
UST just came from a hard-fought four-set do-or-die match against FEU and were banking on their four-set win over Ateneo in the second round to force another sudden death.
Ateneo’s date with destiny was sealed with a four-set win over the Tigresses, who then bid goodbye to Maika Ortiz and Judy Anne Caballejo.
“Pinu-push na rin kami ni Coach Roger noon eh, ‘Hinog na kayo ngayon. Kasi dalawang taon na lang, kailangan makapasok na kayo sa Finals,’” said Ho.
“Somehow senior na rin kami,” added Cainglet.
“Season 74 was really the target season for us to be in the finals and target even to win the championship,” according to Nacachi. “During this time, we were already thinking we could not afford to not go in the finals.”
“So it was with our mindset and our level of commitment that we were able to finally reach our goal of reaching the finals,” she added. “We had enough experience that time already, and it was really time for us to show the level of game maturity the team had obtained from the past seasons.”
But then they had to face an unbeaten team.
Unscathed in 14 games, De La Salle University was poised to complete a perfect season.
The Lady Eagles spoiled it.
Ferrer outplayed DLSU setter Mika Esperanza, 57-42, in excellent sets as Ateneo handed the Lady Spikers its first loss after 25 straight victories in a come-from-behind 23-25, 28-26, 25-23, 25-17, Finals opener win.
Witnessed by 3,002 spectators inside the then The Arena in San Juan, all of the Fab 5 produced points.
Cainglet had 19 behind Valdez’s 24, Gervacio scored 12, Ho had 10, Nacachi finished with five while Ferrer had one.
Gorayeb made a big gambit and it worked.
“Dahil sa wala kong panggitna, yung laro namin ng La Salle, ginawa kong quicker si Alyssa. Kasi si Alyssa nakakapalo. Nagulat si Ramil (de Jesus) dun.”
It was a big win. A huge upset.
Unfortunately, Ateneo needed to win two more.
DLSU held a thrice-to-beat advantage.
After Ateneo made a miracle in Game One, fans began to feel a new rivalry born.
The attendance spiked.
From just 3,000 spectators, the gate attendance more than doubled its size.
The interest was there. Fans of traditional powers began to notice the Lady Eagles as a rising team.
For the first time, a squad with no previous championship experience except for a title during the Marcos era in a different collegiate league, made a giant jolt.
Everybody wanted to see what these girls would do next.
The Lady Eagles, still high on adrenaline after their Game 1 upset, took the opening set in Game 2.
But just like in their opener, a well-experienced DLSU squad adjusted to take the next three frames to move a step closer to a repeat crown.
With then Rookie of the Year Ara Galang, Season Most Valuable Player Aby Marano, an intimidating Michele Gumabao and a very efficient Finals MVP Cha Cruz teaming up for the kill, the Lady Spikers ripped Ateneo apart in Game 3 in straight sets, 25-16, 25-22, 25-13.
“Sabi nga ni Dzi na nadyan na lahat eh. So I guess noong Season 74 nandoon na pero may kulang pa rin,” said Ho. “I guess we we’re able to make it to the Finals pero wala pa kaming championship experience.”
"Siguro ang kulang yung championship experience kasi nasa La Salle na ‘yun eh. Ilang years na silang nagpa-finals, nag-champion and for Ateneo doon pa lang namin sinimulan," said the three-time Best Setter.
Lacking championship experience is one thing, but Ateneo during that time wasn’t ready for DLSU’s most feared weapon: the Lady Spikers’ swag.
“They have that swag,” said Gervacio. “Everyone knows about it naman. It’s really Coach Ramil’s style talaga kasi as I remember when we were first year, four out of six of the players inside the court were rookies and even if we go against the powerhouses UST, FEU, Adamson, hindi sila yung nakikita nyo na kapag championship na rivalry, na swag, angas, stare down. Pero La Salle talaga kahit sino ang kalaban nila they’ll bring that attitude inside the court.”
That Finals series cemented a new rivalry that will become one of the most celebrated in the sport.
“I think it also helped that Ateneo-La Salle basketball didn’t face also,” said Gervacio. “Siyempre nandoon ang hunger for the rivalry eh and timely din na its been Ateneo-La Salle na rin sa volleyball.”
CLOSING A CHAPTER
The Fab 5 were now in their fifth and last year.
They wanted to leave a winning legacy.
The pieces were already there.
Gorayeb had at his disposal five seniors, a rising star in Valdez, a sophomore middle in Amy Ahomiro, a versatile Ella De Jesus, a steady libero in Denden Lazaro and a new kind of weapon – a massive crowd that can turn any venue into a sea of blue.
As expected, the second installment of the Ateneo-DLSU rivalry was set into place.
Both sweeping their semis opponents. The Lady Spikers crushed National University while the Lady Eagles shot down Adamson.
Game One was a shocker.
DLSU heading into the Finals are on a 14-game roll but were stunned in the first two sets with Ateneo stepping on the gas.
But a string of miscues, mostly from the service line, did the Lady Eagles in as they allowed the Lady Spikers to force a decider.
DLSU, smelling blood, punished Ateneo to eke out a 20-25, 17-25, 25-22, 25-22, 15-6, victory inside the Big Dome witnesses by 17,342-strong gate attendance.
Then the series transferred to a newly-built, state-of-the-art Mall of Asia Arena that drew a crowd of 18,799.
The first two frames were frustrating for the Lady Eagles.
Ateneo came back to life in the third set to gain a 9-5 lead.
But DLSU easily erased it with Ateneo crumbling under pressure. The Lady Spikers were on an onslaught.
Sophomore Galang pushed DLSU at matchpoint with a cold-blooded ace that went in a few inches from the baseline. The score, 24-16.
It was a tense moment for the Fab 5.
A long rally ensued in the next play. Gervacio, with all her might pounded a kill.
Her hand making a great contact on the ball off Ferrer’s backset.
The ball ricocheted off the hands of DLSU’s Wensh Tiu before falling on the same landing area of Gervacio, who tried to dive for a dig together with Lazaro.
DLSU swept Ateneo, 25-23, 25-20, 25-16.
“Kahit hindi kami nanalo alam naming ibinigay namin ang lahat namin, all-out talaga kaya wala kaming pagsisisi,” said Ho.
It was the end of the Fab 5 era, but they left more than what any of them could have imagined.
"I remember so many people or fans telling me that they started really watching UAAP Volleyball because of our batch. And that is really touching and fulfilling to know. Knowing that you were able to leave an impact like that to people. We were not able to bring even a single championship to our school, Ateneo, but we were able to touch a lot of people's hearts despite that," Nacachi shared.The Fab 5 closed a colorful chapter of Ateneo volleyball in tears.
They were there during the Lady Eagles’ birth pains. They labored. They shed tears, blood and sweat.
They laid the foundation for something big.
The Fab 5 planted the seeds that would eventually bear fruit and would change the course of Ateneo women’s volleyball program forever.
Glory didn’t happen during their time.
It started in theirs.
Amidst the roar of the crowd, the falling confetti, banging of drums and the echoing chant of ‘Animo La Salle’ from the sea of green, the Fab 5 hugged each other tight.
They found comfort in each other.
It was their time to say goodbye.
For those who remained – Valdez, Lazaro, Ahomiro, De Jesus – the defeat added fuel to their already blazing desire to bring glory for the blue and white.
They were the next in line, heirs to an unfinished business.
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